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What Is Conservatism?

The year 2016 marked a dramatic change of political course for the English-speaking world, with Britain voting for independence from Europe and the United States electing a president promising a revived American nationalism. Critics see both events as representing a dangerous turn toward “illiberalism” and deplore the apparent departure from “liberal principles” or “liberal democracy,” themes that surfaced repeatedly in conservative publications over the past year. Perhaps the most eloquent among the many spokesmen for this view has been William Kristol, who, in a series of essays in the Weekly Standard, has called for a new movement to arise “in defense of liberal democracy.” In his eyes, the historic task of American conservatism is “to preserve and strengthen American liberal democracy,” and what is needed now is “a new conservatism based on old conservative—and liberal—principles.” Meanwhile, the conservative flagship Commentary published a cover story by the Wall Street Journal’s Sohrab Ahmari entitled “Illiberalism: The Worldwide Crisis,” seeking to raise the alarm about the dangers to liberalism posed by Brexit, Trump, and other phenomena.

These and similar examples demonstrate once again that more than a few prominent conservatives in America and Britain today consider themselves to be not only conservatives but also liberals at the same time. Or, to get to the heart of the matter, they see conservatism as a branch or species of liberalism—to their thinking, the “classical” and most authentic form of liberalism. According to this view, the foundations of conservatism are to be found, in significant measure, in the thought of the great liberal icon John Locke and his followers. It is to this tradition, they say, that we must turn for the political institutions—including the separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism—that secure the freedoms of religion, speech, and the press; the right of private property; and due process under law. In other words, if we want limited government and, ultimately, the American Constitution, then there is only one way to go: Lockean liberalism provides the theoretical basis for the ordered freedom that conservatives strive for, and liberal democracy is the only vehicle for it.

Many of those who have been most outspoken on this point have been our long-time friends. We admire and are grateful for their tireless efforts on behalf of conservative causes, including some in which we have worked together as partners. But we see this confusion of conservatism with liberalism as historically and philosophically misguided. Anglo-American conservatism is a distinct political tradition—one that predates Locke by centuries. Its advocates fought for and successfully established most of the freedoms that are now exclusively associated with Lockean liberalism, although they did so on the basis of tenets very different from Locke’s. Indeed, when Locke published his Two Treatises of Government in 1689, offering the public a sweeping new rationale for the traditional freedoms already known to Englishmen, most defenders of these freedoms were justly appalled. They saw in this new doctrine not a friend to liberty but a product of intellectual folly that would ultimately bring down the entire edifice of freedom. Thus, liberalism and conservatism have been opposed political positions in political theory since the day liberal theorizing first set foot in England.

Today’s confusion of conservative political thought with liberalism is in a way understandable, however. In the great twentieth-century battles against totalitarianism, conservatives and liberals were allies: They fought together, along with the Communists, against Nazism. After 1945, conservatives and liberals remained allies in the war against Communism. Over these many decades of joint struggle, what had for centuries been a distinction of vital importance was treated as if it were not terribly important, and in fact, it was largely forgotten.

But since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, these circumstances have changed. The challenges facing the Anglo-American tradition are now coming from other directions entirely. Radical Islam, to name one such challenge, is a menace that liberals, for reasons internal to their own view of the political world, find difficult to regard as a threat and especially difficult to oppose in an effective manner. But even more important is the challenge arising from liberalism itself. It is now evident that liberal principles contribute little or nothing to those institutions that were for centuries the bedrock of the Anglo-American political order: nationalism, religious tradition, the Bible as a source of political principles and wisdom, and the family. Indeed, as liberalism has emerged victorious from the battles of the last century, the logic of its doctrines has increasingly turned liberals against all of these conservative institutions. On both of these fronts, the conservative and liberal principles of the Anglo-American tradition are now painfully at cross-purposes. The twentieth-century alliance between conservatism and liberalism is proving increasingly difficult to maintain.

Among the effects of the long alliance between conservatism and liberalism has been a tendency of political figures, journalists, and academics to slip back and forth between conservative terms and ideas and liberal ones as if they were interchangeable. And until recently, there seemed to be no great harm in this. Now, however, it is becoming obvious that this lack of clarity is crippling our ability to think about a host of issues, from immigration and foreign wars to the content of the Constitution and the place of religion in education and public life. In these and other areas, America, Britain, and their allies can neither recognize the difficulties ahead nor develop appropriate responses to them without a strong and intellectually capable conservatism. But to have a strong and intellectually capable conservatism, we must be able to see clearly what the Anglo-American conservative tradition is and what it is about. And to do this, we have to disentangle it from its old opponent—liberalism.

In this essay, we seek to clarify the historical and philosophical differences between the two major Anglo-American political traditions, conservative and liberal. We will begin by looking at some important events in the emergence of Anglo-American conservatism and its conflict with liberalism. After that, we will use these historical events as a basis for drawing some political distinctions that will be highly relevant for our own political context.

Fortescue and the Birth of Anglo-American Conservatism

The emergence of the Anglo-American conservative tradition can be identified with the words and deeds of a series of towering political and intellectual figures, among whom we can include individuals such as Sir John Fortescue, Richard Hooker, Sir Edward Coke, John Selden, Sir Matthew Hale, Sir William Temple, Jonathan Swift, Josiah Tucker, Edmund Burke, John Dickinson, and Alexander Hamilton. Men such as George Washington, John Adams, and John Marshall, often hastily included among the liberals, would also have placed themselves in this conservative tradition rather than with its opponents, whom they knew all too well.

Living in very different periods, these individuals nevertheless shared common ideas and principles and saw themselves as part of a common tradition of English, and later Anglo-American, constitutionalism. A politically traditionalist outlook of this kind was regarded as the mainstream in both England and America up until the French Revolution and only came to be called “conservative” during the nineteenth century, as it lost ground and became one of two rival camps.

Because the name conservative dates from this time of decline, it is often wrongly asserted that those who continued defending the Anglo-American tradition after the revolution—men such as Burke and Hamilton—were the “first conservatives.” But one has to view history in a peculiar and distorted way to see these men as having founded the tradition they were defending. In fact, neither the principles they upheld nor the arguments with which they defended them were new. They read them in the books of earlier thinkers and political figures such as Fortescue, Coke, Selden, and Hale. These men, the intellectual and political forefathers of Burke and Hamilton, are conservatives in just the same way that John Locke is a liberal. The term was not yet in use, but the ideas that it designates are easily recognizable in their writings, their speeches, and their deeds.

Where does the tradition of Anglo-American conservatism begin? Any date one chooses will be somewhat arbitrary. Even the earliest surviving English legal compilations, dating from the twelfth century, are arguably recognizable as forerunners of this conservative tradition. But we will not make the case for this claim here. Instead, we will begin on what seems to us indisputable ground—with the writings of Sir John Fortescue, which date from the late fifteenth century. Fortescue (c. 1394–1479) occupies a position in the Anglo-American conservative tradition somewhat analogous to Locke in the later liberal tradition: although not the founder of this tradition, he is nonetheless its first truly outstanding expositor and the model in light of which the entire subsequent tradition developed.1 It is here that any conservative should begin his or her education in the Anglo-American tradition.

For eight years during the Wars of the Roses, beginning in 1463, John Fortescue lived in France with the court of the young prince Edward of Lancaster, the “Red Rose” claimant to the English throne, who had been driven into exile by the “White Rose” king Edward IV of York. Fortescue had been a member of Parliament and for nearly two decades chief justice of the King’s Bench, the English Supreme Court. In the exiled court, he became the nominal chancellor of England. While in exile, Fortescue composed several treatises on the constitution and laws of England, foremost among them a small book entitled Praise of the Laws of England.

Although Praise of the Laws of England is often mischaracterized as a work on law, anyone picking it up will immediately recognize it for what it is: an early great work of English political philosophy. Far from being a sterile rehearsal of existing law, it is written as a dialogue between the chancellor of England and the young prince he is educating, so that he may wisely rule his realm. It offers a theorist’s explanation of the reasons for regarding the English constitution as the best model of political government known to man. (Those who have been taught that it was Montesquieu who first argued that, of all constitutions, the English constitution is the one best suited for human freedom will be dismayed to find that this argument is presented more clearly by Fortescue nearly three hundred years earlier, in a work with which Montesquieu was probably familiar.)

According to Fortescue, the English constitution provides for what he calls “political and royal government,” by which he means that English kings do not rule by their own authority alone (i.e., “royal government”), but together with the representatives of the nation in Parliament and in the courts (i.e., “political government”). In other words, the powers of the English king are limited by the traditional laws of the English nation, in the same way—as Fortescue emphasizes—that the powers of the Jewish king in the Mosaic constitution in Deuteronomy are limited by the traditional laws of the Israelite nation. This is in contrast with the Holy Roman Empire of Fortescue’s day, which was supposedly governed by Roman law, and therefore by the maxim that “what pleases the prince has the force of law,” and in contrast with the kings of France, who governed absolutely. Among other things, the English law is described as providing for the people’s representatives, rather than the king, to determine the laws of the realm and to approve requests from the king for taxes.

In addition to this discussion of what later tradition would call the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances, Fortescue also devotes extended discussion to the guarantee of due process under law, which he explores in his discussion of the superior protections afforded to the individual under the English system of trial by jury. Crucially, Fortescue consistently connects the character of a nation’s laws and their protection of private property to economic prosperity, arguing that limited government bolsters such prosperity, while an absolute government leads the people to destitution and ruin. In another of his writings, The Difference between an Absolute and a Limited Monarchy (also known as The Governance of England, c. 1471), he starkly contrasts the well-fed and healthy English population living under their limited government with the French, whose government was constantly confiscating their property and quartering armies in their towns—at the residents’ expense—by unilateral order of the king. The result of such arbitrary taxation and quartering is, as Fortescue writes, that the French people have been “so impoverished and destroyed that they may hardly live. . . . Verily, they live in the most extreme poverty and misery, and yet they dwell in one of the most fertile parts of the world.”

Like later conservative tradition, Fortescue does not believe that either scripture or human reason can provide a universal law suitable for all nations. We do find him drawing frequently on the Mosaic constitution and the biblical “Four Books of Kings” (1–2 Samuel and 1–2 Kings) to assist in understanding the political order and the English constitution. Nevertheless, Fortescue emphasizes that the laws of each realm reflect the historic experience and character of each nation, just as the English common law is in accord with England’s historic experience. Thus, for example, Fortescue argues that a nation that is self-disciplined and accustomed to obeying the laws voluntarily rather than by coercion is one that can productively participate in the way it is governed. This, Fortescue proposes, was true of the people of England, while the French, who were of undisciplined character, could be governed only by the harsh and arbitrary rule of absolute royal government. On the other hand, Fortescue also insisted, again in keeping with biblical precedent and later conservative tradition, that this kind of national character was not set in stone, and that such traits could be gradually improved or worsened over time.

Fortescue was eventually permitted to return to England, but his loyalty to the defeated House of Lancaster meant that he never returned to power. He was to play the part of chancellor of England only in his philosophical dialogue, Praise of the Laws of England. His book, however, went on to become one of the most influential works of political thought in history. Fortescue wrote in the decades before the Reformation, and as a firm Catholic. But every page of his work breathes the spirit of English nationalism—the belief that through long centuries of experience, and thanks to a powerful ongoing identification with Hebrew Scripture, the English had succeeded in creating a form of government more conducive to human freedom and flourishing than any other known to man. First printed around 1545, Fortescue’s Praise of the Laws of England spoke in a resounding voice to that period of heightened nationalist sentiment in which English traditions, now inextricably identified with Protestantism, were pitted against the threat of invasion by Spanish-Catholic forces aligned with the Holy Roman Emperor. This environment quickly established Fortescue as England’s first great political theorist, paving the way for him to be read by centuries of law students in both England and America and by educated persons wherever the broader Anglo-American conservative tradition struck root.

The Greatest Conservative: John Selden

We turn now to the decisive chapter in the formation of modern Anglo-American conservatism: the great seventeenth-century battle between defenders of the traditional English constitution against political absolutism on one side, and against the first advocates of a Lockean universalist rationalism on the other. This chapter in the story is dominated by the figure of John Selden (1584–1654), probably the greatest theorist of Anglo-American conservatism.

Under the reign of Elizabeth Tudor, Fortescue’s account of the virtues of England’s traditional institutions had become an integral part of the self-understanding of a politically independent English nation. But in 1603, Elizabeth died childless and was succeeded by her distant relative, the king of Scotland, James Stuart. The Stuart kings had little patience for English theories of “political and royal rule.” In fact, James, himself a thinker of some ability, had four years earlier penned a political treatise of his own, in which he explained that kings rule by divine right and the laws of the realm are, as the title of his book suggested, a Basilikon Doron (Greek for “Royal Gift”). In other words, the laws are the king’s freely given gift, which he can choose to make or revoke as he pleases. James was too prudent a man to openly press for his absolutist theories among his English subjects, and he insisted that he meant to respect their traditional constitution. But the English, who had bought thousands of copies of the king’s book when he ascended to their throne, were never fully convinced. Indeed, the policies of James and, later, his son Charles I constantly rekindled suspicions that the Stuarts’ aim was a creeping authoritarianism that would eventually leave England as bereft of freedom as France.

When this question finally came to a head, most of the members of the English Parliament and common lawyers proved willing to risk their careers, their freedom, and even their lives in the defense of Fortescue’s “political and royal rule.” Among these were eminent names such as Sir John Eliot and the chief justice of the King’s Bench, Sir Edward Coke. But in the generation that bore the full brunt of the new absolutist ideas, it was John Selden who stood above all others. The most important common lawyer of his generation, he was also a formidable political philosopher and polymath who knew more than twenty languages. Selden became a prominent leader in Parliament, where he joined the older Coke in a series of clashes with the king. In this period, Parliament denied the king’s right to imprison Englishmen without showing cause, to impose taxes and forced loans without the approval of Parliament, to quarter soldiers in private homes, and to wield martial law in order to circumvent the laws of the land.

In 1628, Selden played a leading role in drafting and passing an act of Parliament called the Petition of Right, which sought to restore and safeguard “the divers rights and liberties of the subjects” that had been known under the traditional English constitution. Among other things, it asserted that “your subjects have inherited this freedom, that they should not be compelled to contribute to any tax . . . not set by common consent in Parliament”; that “no freeman may be taken or imprisoned or be disseized of his freehold or liberties, or his free customs . . . but by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land”; and that no man “should be put out of his land or tenements, nor taken, nor imprisoned, nor disinherited nor put to death without being brought to answer by due process of law.”

In the Petition of Right, then, we find the famous principle of “no taxation without representation,” as well as versions of the rights enumerated in the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendments of the American Bill of Rights—all declared to be ancient constitutional English freedoms and unanimously approved by Parliament, before Locke was even born. Although not mentioned in the Petition explicitly, freedom of speech had likewise been reaffirmed by Coke as “an ancient custom of Parliament” in the 1590s and was the subject of the so-called Protestation of 1621 that landed Coke, then seventy years old, in the Tower of London for nine months.

In other words, Coke, Eliot, and Selden risked everything to defend the same liberties that we ourselves hold dear in the face of an increasingly authoritarian regime. (In fact, John Eliot was soon to die in the king’s prison.) But they did not do so in the name of liberal doctrines of universal reason, natural rights, or “self-evident” truths. These they explicitly rejected because they were conservatives, not liberals. Let’s try to understand this.

Selden saw himself as an heir to Fortescue and, in fact, was involved in republishing the Praise for the Laws of England in 1616. His own much more extensive theoretical defense of English national traditions appeared in the form of short historical treatises on English law, as well as in a series of massive works (begun while Selden was imprisoned on ill-defined sedition charges for his activities in the 1628–29 Parliament) examining political theory and law in conversation with classical rabbinic Judaism. The most famous of these was his monumental Natural and National Law (1640). In these works, Selden sought to defend conservative traditions, including the English one, not only against the absolutist doctrines of the Stuarts but also against the claims of a universalist rationalism, according to which men could simply consult their own reason, which was the same for everyone, to determine the best constitution for mankind. This rationalist view had begun to collect adherents in England among followers of the great Dutch political theorist Hugo Grotius, whose On the Law of War and Peace (1625) suggested that it might be possible to do away with the traditional constitutions of nations by relying only on the rationality of the individual.

Then as now, conservatives could not understand how such a reliance on alleged universal reason could be remotely workable, and Selden’s Natural and National Law includes an extended attack on such theories in its first pages. There Selden argues that, everywhere in history, “unrestricted use of pure and simple reason” has led to conclusions that are “intrinsically inconsistent and dissimilar among men.” If we were to create government on the basis of pure reason alone, this would not only lead to the eventual dissolution of government but to widespread confusion, dissention, and perpetual instability as one government is changed for another that appears more reasonable at a given moment. Indeed, following Fortescue, Selden rejects the idea that a universally applicable system of rights is even possible. As he writes in an earlier work, what “may be most convenient or just in one state may be as unjust and inconvenient in another, and yet both excellently as well framed as governed.” With regard to those who believe that their reasoning has produced the universal truths that should be evident to all men, he shrewdly warns that

custom quite often wears the mask of nature, and we are taken in [by this] to the point that the practices adopted by nations, based solely on custom, frequently come to seem like natural and universal laws of mankind.

Selden responds to the claims of universal reason by arguing for a position that can be called historical empiricism. On this view, our reasoning in political and legal matters should be based upon inherited national tradition. This permits the statesman or jurist to overcome the small stock of observation and experience that individuals are able to accumulate during their own lifetimes (“that kind of ignorant infancy, which our short lives alone allow us”) and to take advantage of “the many ages of former experience and observation,” which permit us to “accumulate years to us, as if we had lived even from the beginning of time.” In other words, by consulting the accumulated experience of the past, we overcome the inherent weakness of individual judgement, bringing to bear the many lifetimes of observation by our forebears, who wrestled with similar questions under diverse conditions.

This is not to say that Selden is willing to accept the prescription of the past blindly. He pours scorn on those who embrace errors originating in the distant past, which, he says, have often been accepted as true by entire communities and “adopted without protest, and loaded onto the shoulders of posterity like so much baggage.” Recalling the biblical Jeremiah’s insistence on an empirical study of the paths of old (Jer. 6:16), Selden argues that the correct method is that “all roads must be carefully examined. We must ask about the ancient paths, and only what is truly the best may be chosen.” But for Selden, the instrument for such examination and selection is not the wild guesswork of individual speculation concerning various hypothetical possibilities. In the life of a nation, the inherited tradition of legal opinions and legislation preserves a multiplicity of perspectives from different times and circumstances, as well as the consequences for the nation when the law has been interpreted one way or another. Looking back upon these varied and changing positions within the tradition, and considering their real-life results, one can distinguish the true precepts of the law from the false turns that have been taken in the past. As Selden explains:

The way to find out the Truth is by others’ mistakings: For if I [wish] to go to such [and such] a place, and [some]one had gone before me on the right-hand [side], and he was out, [while] another had gone on the left-hand, and he was out, this would direct me to keep the middle way that peradventure would bring me to the place I desired to go.

Selden thus turns, much as the Hebrew Bible does, to a form of pragmatism to explain what is meant when statesmen and jurists speak of truth. The laws develop through a process of trial and error over generations, as we come to understand how peace and prosperity (“what is truly best,” “the place I desired to go”) arise from one turn rather than another.

Selden recognizes that, in making these selections from the traditions of the past, we tacitly rely upon a higher criterion for selection, a natural law established by God, which prescribes “what is truly best” for mankind in the most elementary terms. In his Natural and National Law, Selden explains that this natural law has been discovered over long generations since the biblical times and has come down to us in various versions. Of these, the most reliable is that of the Talmud, which describes the seven laws of the children of Noah prohibiting murder, theft, sexual perversity, cruelty to beasts, idolatry and defaming God, and requiring courts of law to enforce justice. The experience of thousands of years has taught us that these laws frame the peace and prosperity that is the end of all nations, and that they are the unseen root from which the diverse laws of all the nations ultimately derive.

Nonetheless, Selden emphasizes that no nation can govern itself by directly appealing to such fundamental law, because “diverse nations, as diverse men, have their diverse collections and inferences, and so make their diverse laws to grow to what they are, out of one and the same root.” Each nation thus builds its own unique effort to implement the natural law according to an understanding based on its own unique experience and conditions. It is thus wise to respect the different laws found among nations, both those that appear right to us and those that appear mistaken, for different perspectives may each have something to contribute to our pursuit of the truth. (Selden’s treatment of the plurality of human knowledge is cited by Milton as a basis for his defense of freedom of speech in Areopagitica.)

Selden thus offers us a picture of a philosophical parliamentarian or jurist. He must constantly maintain the strength and stability of the inherited national edifice as a whole—but also recognize the need to make repairs and improvements where these are needed. In doing so, he seeks to gradually approach, by trial and error, the best that is possible for each nation.

Selden’s view of the underlying principles of what was to become the Anglo-American traditional constitution is perhaps the most balanced and sophisticated ever written. But neither his intellectual powers nor his personal bravery, nor that of his colleagues in Parliament, were enough to save the day. Stuart absolutism eventually pressed England toward civil war and, finally, to a Puritan military dictatorship that not only executed the king but destroyed Parliament and the constitution as well. Selden did not live to see the constitution restored. The regicide regime subsequently offered England several brand-new constitutions, none of which proved workable, and within eleven years it had collapsed.

In 1660, two eminent disciples of Selden, Edward Hyde (afterward Earl of Clarendon) and Sir Matthew Hale, played a leading role in restoring the constitution and the line of Stuart kings. When the Catholic James II succeeded to the throne in 1685, fear of a relapse into papism and even of a renewed attempt to establish absolutism moved the rival political factions of the country to unite in inviting the next Protestants in line to the throne. The king’s daughter Mary and her husband, Prince William of Orange, the Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic, crossed the channel to save Protestant England and its constitution. Parliament, having confirmed the willingness of the new joint monarchs to protect the English from “all other attempts upon their religion, rights and liberties,” in 1689 established the new king and queen on the throne and ratified England’s famous Bill of Rights. This new document reasserted the ancient rights invoked in the earlier Petition of Right, among other things affirming the right of Protestant subjects to “have arms for their defense” and the right of “freedom of speech and debates” in Parliament, and that “excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted”—the basis for the First, Second, and Eighth Amendments of the American Bill of Rights. Freedom of speech was quickly extended to the wider public, with the termination of English press licensing laws a few years later.

The restoration of a Protestant monarch and the adoption of the Bill of Rights were undertaken by a Parliament united around Seldenian principles. What came to be called the “Glorious Revolution” was glorious precisely because it reaffirmed the traditional English constitution and protected the English nation from renewed attacks on “their religion, rights and liberties.” Such attacks came from absolutists like Sir Robert Filmer on the one hand, whose Patriarcha (published posthumously, 1680) advocated authoritarian government as the only legitimate one, and by radicals like John Locke on the other. Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689) responded to the crisis by arguing for the right of the people to dissolve the traditional constitution and reestablish it according to universal reason.

The Challenge from Locke and Liberalism

Over the course of the seventeenth century, English conservatism was formed into a coherent and unmistakable political philosophy utterly opposed both to the absolutism of the Stuarts, Hobbes, and Filmer (what would later be called “the Right”), as well as to liberal theories of universal reason advanced first by Grotius and then by Locke (“the Left”). The centrist conservative view was to remain the mainstream understanding of the English constitution for a century and a half, defended by leading Whig intellectuals in works from William Atwood’s Fundamental Constitution of the English Government (1690) to Josiah Tucker’s A Treatise of Civil Government (1781), which strongly opposed both absolutism and Lockean theories of universal rights. This is the view upon which men like Blackstone, Burke, Washington, and Hamilton were educated. Not only in England but in British America, lawyers were trained in the common law by studying Coke’s Institutes of the Lawes of England (1628–44) and Hale’s History of the Common Law of England (1713). In both, the law of the land was understood to be the traditional English constitution and common law, amended as needed for local purposes.

Because Locke is today recognized as the decisive figure in the liberal tradition, it is worth looking more carefully at why his political theory was so troubling for conservatives. We have described the Anglo-American conservative tradition as subscribing to a historical empiricism, which proposes that political knowledge is gained by examining the long history of the customary laws of a given nation and the consequences when these laws have been altered in one direction or another. Conservatives understand that a jurist must exercise reason and judgment, of course. But this reasoning is about how best to adapt traditional law to present circumstances, making such changes as are needed for the betterment of the state and of the public, while preserving as much as possible the overall frame of the law. To this we have opposed a standpoint that can be called rationalist. Rationalists have a different view of the role of reason in political thought, and in fact a different understanding of what reason itself is. Rather than arguing from the historical experience of nations, they set out by asserting general axioms that they believe to be true of all human beings, and that they suppose will be accepted by all human beings examining them with their native rational abilities. From these they deduce the appropriate constitution or laws for all men.

Locke is known philosophically as an empiricist. But his reputation in this regard is based largely on his Essay concerning Human Understanding (1689), which is an influential exercise in empirical psychology. His Second Treatise of Government is not, however, a similar effort to bring an empirical standpoint to the theory of the state. Instead, it begins with a series of axioms that are without any evident connection to what can be known from the historical and empirical study of the state. Among other things, Locke asserts that, (1) prior to the establishment of government, men exist in a “state of nature,” in which (2) “all men are naturally in a state of perfect freedom,” as well as in (3) a “state of perfect equality, where naturally there is no superiority or jurisdiction of one over another.” Moreover, (4) this state of nature “has a law of nature to govern it”; and (5) this law of nature is, as it happens, nothing other than human “reason” itself, which “teaches all mankind, who will but consult it.” It is this universal reason, the same among all mankind, that leads them to (6) terminate the state of nature, “agreeing together mutually to enter into . . . one body politic” by an act of free consent. From these six axioms, Locke then proceeds to deduce the proper character of the political order for all nations on earth.

Three important things should be noticed about this set of axioms. The first is that the elements of Locke’s political theory are not known from experience. The “perfect freedom” and “perfect equality” that define the state of nature are ideal forms whose relationship with empirical reality is entirely unclear. Nor can the identity of natural law with reason, or the assertion that the law dictated by reason “teaches all mankind,” or the establishment of the state by means of purely consensual social contract, be known empirically. All of these things are stipulated as when setting out a mathematical system.

The second thing to notice is that there is no reason to think that any of Locke’s axioms are in fact true. Faced with this mass of unverifiable assertions, empiricist political theorists such as Hume, Smith, and Burke rejected all of Locke’s axioms and sought to rebuild political philosophy on the basis of things that can be known from history and from an examination of actual human societies and governments.

Third, Locke’s theory not only dispenses with the historical and empirical basis for the state, it also implies that such inquiries are, if not entirely unnecessary, then of secondary importance. If there exists a form of reason that is accessible to “all mankind, who will but consult it,” and that reveals to all the universal laws of nature governing the political realm, then there will be little need for the historically and empirically grounded reasoning of men such as Fortescue, Coke, and Selden. All men, if they will just gather together and consult with their own reason, can design a government that will be better than anything that “the many ages of experience and observation” produced in England. On this view, the Anglo-American conservative tradition—far from having brought into being the freest and best constitution ever known to mankind—is in fact shot through with unwarranted prejudice and an obstacle to a better life for all. Locke’s theory thus pronounces, in other words, the end of Anglo-American conservatism, and the end of the traditional constitution that conservatives still held to be among the most precious things on earth.

While Locke’s rationalist theories made limited headway in England, they were all the rage in France. Rousseau’s On the Social Contract (1762) went where others had feared to tread, embracing Locke’s system of axioms for correct political thought and calling upon mankind to consent only to the one legitimate constitution dictated by reason. Within thirty years, Rousseau, Voltaire, and the other French imitators of Locke’s rationalist politics received what they had demanded in the form of the French Revolution. The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was followed by the Reign of Terror for those who would not listen to reason. Napoleon’s imperialist liberalism rapidly followed, bringing universal reason and the “rights of man” to the whole of continental Europe by force of arms, at a cost of millions of lives.2

In 1790, a year after the beginning of the French Revolution, the Anglo-Irish thinker and Whig parliamentarian Edmund Burke composed his famous defense of the English constitutional tradition against the liberal doctrines of universal reason and universal rights, entitled Reflections on the Revolution in France. In one passage, Burke asserted that

Selden, and the other profoundly learned men, who drew this petition of right, were as well acquainted, at least, with all the general theories concerning the “rights of men” [as any defenders of the revolution in France]. . . . But, for reasons worthy of that practical wisdom which superseded their theoretic science, they preferred this positive, recorded, hereditary title to all which can be dear to the man and the citizen, to that vague speculative right, which exposed their sure inheritance to be scrambled for and torn to pieces by every wild, litigious spirit.

In this passage, Burke correctly emphasizes that Selden and the other great conservative figures of his day had been quite familiar with the “general theories concerning the ‘rights of men’” that had now been used to overthrow the state in France. He then goes on to endorse Selden’s argument that universal rights, since they are based only on reason rather than “positive, recorded, hereditary title,” can be said to give everyone a claim to absolutely anything. Adopting a political theory based on such universal rights has one obvious meaning: that the “sure inheritance” of one’s nation will immediately be “scrambled for and torn to pieces” by “every wild litigious spirit” who knows how to use universal rights to make ever new demands.

Burke’s argument is frequently quoted today by conservatives who assume that his target was Rousseau and his followers in France. But Burke’s attack was not primarily aimed at Rousseau, who had few enthusiasts in Britain or America at the time. The actual target of his attack was contemporary followers of Grotius and Locke—individuals such as Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, Charles James Fox, Charles Grey, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson. Price, who was the explicit subject of Burke’s attack in the first pages of Reflections on the Revolution in France, had opened his Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty (1776) with the assertion that “the principles on which I have argued form the foundation of every state as far as it is free; and are the same with those taught by Mr. Locke.” And much the same could be said of the others, all of whom followed Locke in claiming that the only true foundation for political and constitutional thought was precisely in those “general theories concerning the rights of men” that Burke believed would bring turmoil and death to one country after another.

The carnage taking place in France triggered a furious debate in England. It pitted supporters of the conservatism of Coke and Selden (both Whigs and Tories) against admirers of Locke’s universal rights theories (the so-called New Whigs). The conservatives insisted that these theories would uproot every traditional political and religious institution in England, just as they were doing in France. It is against the backdrop of this debate that Burke reportedly stated in Parliament that, of all the books ever written, the Second Treatise was “one of the worst.”

 Liberalism and Conservatism in America

Burke’s conservative defense of the traditional English constitution enjoyed a large measure of success in Britain, where it was continued after his death by figures such as Canning, Wellington, and Disraeli. That this is so is obvious from the fact that institutions such as the monarchy, the House of Lords, and the established Church of England, not to mention the common law itself, were able to withstand the gale winds of universal reason and universal rights, and to this day have their staunch supporters.

But what of America? Was the American revolution an upheaval based on Lockean universal reason and universal rights? To hear many conservatives talk today, one would think this were so, and that there never were any conservatives in the American mainstream, only liberals of different shades. The reality, however, was rather different. When the American English, as Burke called them, rebelled against the British monarch, there were already two distinct political theories expressed among the rebels, and the opposition between these two camps only grew with time.

First, there were those who admired the English constitution that they had inherited and studied. Believing they had been deprived of their rights under the English constitution, their aim was to regain these rights. Identifying themselves with the tradition of Coke and Selden, they hoped to achieve a victory against royal absolutism comparable to what their English forefathers had achieved in the Petition of Right and Bill of Rights. To individuals of this type, the word revolution still had its older meaning, invoking something that “revolves” and would, through their efforts, return to its rightful place—in effect, a restoration. Alexander Hamilton was probably the best-known exponent of this kind of conservative politics, telling the assembled delegates to the constitutional convention of 1787, for example, that “I believe the British government forms the best model the world ever produced.” Or, as John Dickinson told the convention: “Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us. It was not reason that discovered the singular and admirable mechanism of the English constitution…. Accidents probably produced these discoveries, and experience has given a sanction to them.” And it is evident that they were quietly supported behind the scenes by other adherents of this view, among them the president of the convention, General George Washington.

Second, there were true revolutionaries, liberal followers of Locke such as Jefferson, who detested England and believed—just as the French followers of Rousseau believed—that the dictates of universal reason made the true rights of man evident to all. For them, the traditional English constitution was not the source of their freedoms but rather something to be swept away before the rights dictated by universal reason. And indeed, during the French Revolution, Jefferson and his supporters embraced it as a purer version of what the Americans had started. As he wrote in a notorious letter in 1793 justifying the revolution in France: “The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest. . . . [R]ather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated.”

The tension between these conservative and liberal camps finds rather dramatic expression in America’s founding documents: The Declaration of Independence, drafted by Jefferson in 1776, is famous for resorting, in its preamble, to the Lockean doctrine of universal rights as “self-evident” before the light of reason. Similarly, the Articles of Confederation, negotiated the following year as the constitution of the new United States of America, embody a radical break with the traditional English constitution. These Articles asserted the existence of thirteen independent states, at the same time establishing a weak representative assembly over them without even the power of taxation, and requiring assent by nine of thirteen states to enact policy. The Articles likewise made no attempt at all to balance the powers of this assembly, effectively an executive, with separate legislative or judicial branches of government.

The Articles of Confederation came close to destroying the United States. After a decade of disorder in both foreign and economic affairs, the Articles were replaced by the Constitution, drafted at a convention initiated by Hamilton and James Madison, and presided over by a watchful Washington, while Jefferson was away in France. Anyone comparing the Constitution that emerged with the earlier Articles of Confederation immediately recognizes that what took place at this convention was a reprise of the Glorious Revolution of 1689. Despite being adapted to the American context, the document that the convention produced proposed a restoration of the fundamental forms of the English constitution: a strong president, designated by an electoral college (in place of the hereditary monarchy); the president balanced in strikingly English fashion by a powerful bicameral legislature with the power of taxation and legislation; the division of the legislature between a quasi-aristocratic, appointed Senate and a popularly elected House; and an independent judiciary. Even the American Bill of Rights of 1789 is modeled upon the Petition of Right and the English Bill of Rights, largely elaborating the same rights that had been described by Coke and Selden and their followers, and breathing not a word anywhere about universal reason or universal rights.

The American Constitution did depart from the traditional English constitution, however, adapting it to local conditions on certain key points. The Americans, who had no nobility and no tradition of hereditary office, declined to institute these now. Moreover, the Constitution of 1787 allowed slavery, which was forbidden in England—a wretched innovation for which America would pay a price the framers could not have imagined in their wildest nightmares.

Another departure—or apparent departure—was the lack of a provision for a national church, enshrined in the First Amendment in the form of a prohibition on congressional legislation “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The English constitutional tradition, of course, gave a central role to the Protestant religion, which was held to be indispensable and inextricably tied to English identity (although not incompatible with a broad measure of toleration). But the British state, in certain respects federative, permitted separate, officially established national churches in Scotland and Ireland. This British acceptance of a diversity of established churches is partially echoed in the American Constitution, which permitted the respective states to support their own established churches, or to require that public offices in the state be held by Protestants or by Christians, well into the nineteenth century. When these facts are taken into account, the First Amendment appears less an attempt to put an end to established religion than a provision for keeping the peace among the states by delegating forms of religious establishment to the state level.

As early as 1802, however, Jefferson, now president, announced  that the First Amendment’s rejection of a national church in fact should be interpreted as an “act of the whole American people . . . building a wall of separation between church and state.” This characterization of the American Constitution as endorsing a “separation of church and state” was surely overwrought, and more compatible with French liberalism—which regarded public religion as abhorrent to reason—than with the actual place of state religion among “the whole American people” at the time. Yet on this point, Jefferson has emerged victorious. In the years that followed, his “wall of separation between church and state” interpretation was increasingly considered to be an integral part of the American Constitution, even if one that had not been included in the actual text.

Lockean liberalism grew increasingly dominant in America after Jefferson’s election. Hamilton’s death in a duel in 1804, at the age of 47, was an especially heavy blow that left American conservatism without its most able spokesman. Nevertheless, the tradition of Selden and Burke was taken up by Americans of the next generation, including two of the country’s most prominent jurists, New York chancellor James Kent (1763–1847) and Supreme Court justice Joseph Story (1779–1845). Story’s influence was especially significant. Although appointed to the Supreme Court by Jefferson in the hope of undermining Chief Justice John Marshall, Story’s opinions almost immediately displayed the opposite inclination, and continued to do so throughout his thirty-four-year tenure on the court. Perhaps Story’s greatest contribution to the American conservative tradition is his famous Commentaries on the Constitution (3 vols., 1833), which were dedicated to Marshall and went on to be the most important and influential interpretation of the American constitutional tradition in the nineteenth century. These were overtly conservative in spirit, citing Burke with approval and repeatedly criticizing not only Locke’s theories but Jefferson himself. Among other things, Story forcefully rejected Jefferson’s claim that the American founding had been based on universal rights determined by reason, emphasizing that it was the rights of the English traditional law that Americans had always recognized and continued to recognize. As he wrote:

[This] has been the uniform doctrine in America ever since the settlement of the colonies. The universal principle (and the practice has conformed to it) has been, that the common law is our birthright and inheritance, and that our ancestors brought hither with them upon their emigration all of it, which was applicable to their situation. The whole structure of our present jurisprudence stands upon the original foundations of the common law.

Regarding the American Constitution’s deviation from English tradition in the matter of a national religion, Story’s view was appropriately balanced. On the one hand, he confirmed “the right of private judgment in matters of religion, and of the freedom of public worship according to the dictates of one’s conscience” as an integral part of the nation’s constitutional heritage. At the same time, he asserted the traditional Anglo-American conservative view that “the right of a society or government to interfere in matters of religion will hardly be contested by any persons, who believe that piety, religion, and morality are intimately connected with the well-being of the state, and indispensable to the administration of civil justice.” For this reason, he was confident that the ongoing circumstances of his day, in which some of the states continued to “support and sustain, in some form, the Christian religion,” as being “without the slightest suspicion that it was against the principles of public law or republican liberty.” Story thus recognized no wall of separation between the government and religion at the state level as being either required by the American constitution or desirable.

As for the breach in conservative principles that had opened up with the barring of an establishment of religion at the national level, Story wrote with prescient concern:

It yet remains a problem to be solved in human affairs, whether any free government can be permanent, where the public worship of God, and the support of religion, constitute no part of the policy or duty of the state in any assignable shape.

Principles of the Conservative Tradition

As we have seen, the period between John Selden and Edmund Burke gave rise to two highly distinct and conflicting Anglo-American political traditions, conservative and liberal. Both were opposed to royal absolutism and devoted to freedom. But they were bitterly divided on theoretical grounds, as well as on a wide range of policy matters. Indeed, many of the principal issues that divided these two traditions continue to divide liberals and conservatives today.

What is the substance of the Anglo-American conservative political tradition? We can summarize the principles of conservatism as they appeared in the writings and deeds of the early architects of this tradition as follows:

(1) Historical Empiricism. The authority of government derives from constitutional traditions known, through the long historical experience of a given nation, to offer stability, well-being, and freedom. These traditions are refined through trial and error over many centuries, with repairs and improvements being introduced where necessary, while maintaining the integrity of the inherited national edifice as a whole. Such empiricism entails a skeptical standpoint with regard to the divine right of the rulers, the universal rights of man, or any other abstract, universal systems. Written documents express and consolidate the constitutional traditions of the nation, but they can neither capture nor define this political tradition in its entirety.

(2) Nationalism. The diversity of national experiences means that different nations will have different constitutional and religious traditions. The Anglo-American tradition harkens back to principles of a free and just national state, charting its own course without foreign interference, whose origin is in the Bible. These include a conception of the nation as arising out of diverse tribes, its unity anchored in common traditional law and religion. Such nationalism is not based on race, embracing new members who declare that “your people is my people, and your God is my God” (Ruth 1:16).

(3) Religion. The state upholds and honors the biblical God and religious practices common to the nation. These are the centerpiece of the national heritage and indispensable for justice and public morals. At the same time, the state offers wide toleration to religious and social views that do not endanger the integrity and well-being of the nation as a whole.

(4) Limited Executive Power. The powers of the king (or president) are limited by the laws of the nation, which he neither determines nor adjudicates. The powers of the king (or president) are limited by the representatives of the people, whose advice and consent he must obtain both respecting the laws and taxation.

(5) Individual Freedoms. The security of the individual’s life and property is mandated by God as the basis for a society that is both peaceful and prosperous, and is to be protected against arbitrary actions of the state. The ability of the nation to seek truth and conduct sound policy depends on freedom of speech and debate. These and other fundamental rights and liberties are guaranteed by law, and may be infringed upon only by due process of law.

These principles can serve as a useful summary of the conservative political tradition as it existed long before Locke and long before liberalism, serving as the basis for the restoration of the English constitution in 1689, and for the restoration that was the ratification of the American Constitution of 1787. Moreover, we see them as principles that we can affirm today, and which can serve as a sound basis for political conservatism in Britain, America, and other countries in our time.

Conservatism versus Liberalism in Current Affairs

How do these conservative principles conflict with those of liberalism? We understand the crucial differences between ourselves and our liberal friends in the following way:

Liberalism is a political doctrine based on the assumption that reason is everywhere the same and accessible, in principle, to all individuals; and that one need only consult reason to arrive at the one form of government that is everywhere the best, for all mankind. In its current form, liberalism asserts that this one best form of government is “liberal democracy.” This is a term popularized in the 1920s to describe a type kind of government that borrows certain principles from the earlier Anglo-American conservative tradition, including those limiting executive power and guaranteeing individual freedoms (Principles 4 and 5 above). But liberalism regards these principles as stand-alone entities, detachable from the broader Anglo-American tradition in which they arose. Liberals thus tend to have few, if any, qualms about discarding the national and religious foundations of Anglo-American government (Principles 2 and 3), regarding these as unnecessary, if not simply contrary to universal reason.

With Selden, we believe that, in their campaign for universal “liberal democracy,” liberals have confused certain historical-empirical principles of the traditional Anglo-American constitution, painstakingly developed and inculcated over centuries (Principle 1), for universal truths that are equally accessible to all human beings, regardless of historical or cultural circumstances. This means that, like all rationalists, they are engaged in applying local truths, which may hold good under certain conditions, to quite different situations and circumstances, where they often go badly wrong. For conservatives, these failures—for example, the repeated collapse of liberal constitutions in places such as Mexico, France, Germany, Italy, Nigeria, Russia, and Iraq, among many others—suggest that the principles in question have been overextended and should be regarded as true only within a narrower range of conditions. Liberals, on the other hand, explain such failures as a result of “poor implementation,” leaving liberal democracy as a universal truth that remains untouched by experience and unassailable, no matter what the circumstances.

The liberal assertion that Principles 4 and 5 are universal truths that are readily recognized by all human beings has had far-reaching consequences even in the United States and Britain. The fact is that what is now called “liberal democracy” refers not to the traditional Anglo-American constitution but to a rationalist reconstruction of it that has been entirely detached from the Protestant religion and the Anglo-American nationalist tradition.  Far from being a time-tested form of government, this liberal-democratic ideal is something new to both America and Britain, dating only from the mid-twentieth century. The claim that liberal-democratic regimes of this kind can be maintained for long without the conservative principles they have blithely discarded is a hypothesis now being tested for the first time. Those who believe that a favorable outcome of this experiment is assured draw this conclusion not from historical or empirical evidence, for we have none. Rather, their confidence derives from the closed Lockean-rationalist system that holds them captive, preventing them from being able to anticipate any of the other quite possible outcomes before us.

These pronounced differences between conservatives and liberals do not, of course, remain at the rarified level of political theory. They quickly lead to disagreements over proposed policy, expressed in somewhat different ways from one generation to the next. In our own day, we recognize the clash between conservatism and liberalism in the following areas, among others (here described only very briefly, and so in overly simple terms):

Liberal Empire. Because liberalism is thought to be a dictate of universal reason, liberals tend to believe that any country not already governed as a liberal democracy should be pressed—or even coerced—to adopt this form of government. Conservatives, on the other hand, recognize that different societies are held together and kept at peace in different ways, so that the universal application of liberal doctrines often brings collapse and chaos, doing more harm than good.

International Bodies. Similarly, liberals believe that, since liberal principles are universal, there is little harm done in reassigning the powers of government to international bodies. Conservatives, on the other hand, believe that such international organizations possess no sound governing traditions and no loyalty to particular national populations that might restrain their spurious theorizing about universal rights. They therefore see such bodies as inevitably tending to arbitrariness and autocracy.

Immigration. Liberals believe that, since liberal principles are accessible to all, there is nothing to be feared in large-scale immigration from countries with national and religious traditions very different from ours. Conservatives see successful large-scale immigration as possible only where the immigrants are strongly motivated to integrate and assisted in assimilating the national traditions of their new home country. In the absence of these conditions, the result will be chronic intercultural tension and violence.

Law. Liberals regard the laws of a nation as emerging from the tension between positive law and the pronouncements of universal reason, as expressed by the courts. Conservatives reject the supposed universal reason of judges, which often amounts to little more than their succumbing to passing fashion. But conservatives also oppose an excessive regard for written documents, which leads, for example, to the liberal mythology of America as a “creedal nation” (or a “propositional nation”) created and defined solely by the products of abstract reason that are supposedly found in the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

Economy. Liberals regard the universal market economy, operating without regard to borders, as a dictate of universal reason and applicable equally to all nations. They therefore recognize no legitimate economic aims other than the creation of a “level field” on which all nations participate in accordance with universal, rational rules. Conservatives regard the market economy and free enterprise as indispensable for the advancement of the nation in its wealth and wellbeing. But they see economic arrangements as inevitably varying from one country to another, reflecting the particular historical experiences and innovations of each nation as it competes to gain advantage for its people.

Education. Liberals believe that schools should teach students to recognize the Lockean goods of liberty and equality as the universal aims of political order, and to see America’s founding political documents as having largely achieved these aims. Conservatives believe education should focus on the particular character of the Anglo-American constitutional and religious tradition, with its roots in the Bible, and on the way in which this tradition has given rise to a unique family of nations with a distinctive political thought and practice that has influenced the world.

Public Religion. Liberals believe that universal reason is the necessary and sufficient basis for just and moral government. This means that the religious traditions of the nation, which had earlier been the basis for a public understanding of justice and right, can be replaced in public discourse by universal reason itself. In its current form, liberalism asserts that all governments should embrace a Jeffersonian “wall separating church and state,” whose purpose is to banish the influence of religion from public life, relegating it to the private sphere. Conservatives hold that none of this is true. They see human reason as producing a constant profusion of ever-changing views concerning justice and morals—a fact that is evident today in the constant assertion of new and rapidly multiplying human rights. Conservatives hold that the only stable basis for national independence, justice, and public morals is a strong biblical tradition in government and public life. They reject the doctrine of separation of church and state, instead advocating an integration of religion into public life that also offers broad toleration of diverse religious views.

The Restoration of Conservatism?

Burke and Hamilton belonged to a generation that was still educated in the significance of the Anglo-American tradition as a whole. Only a few decades later, this had begun to change, and by the end of the nineteenth century, conservative views were increasingly in the minority and defensive both in Britain and America. But conservatism was really only broken in a decisive way by Franklin Roosevelt in America in 1932, and by Labour in Britain in 1945. At this point, socialism displaced liberalism as the worldview of the parties of the “Left,” driving some liberals to join with the last vestiges of the conservative tradition in the parties of the “Right.” In this environment, new leaders and movements did arise and succeed from time to time in raising the banner of Anglo-American conservatism once more. But these conservatives were living on a shattered political and philosophical landscape, having lost much of the chain of transmission that had connected earlier conservatives to their forefathers. Thus their roots remained shallow, and their victories, however impressive, brought about no long-term conservative restoration.

The most significant of these conservative revivals was, of course, the one that reached its peak in the 1980s under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan. Thatcher and Reagan were genuine and instinctive conservatives, displaying traditional Anglo-American conservative attachments to nation and religion, as well as to limited government and individual freedom. They also recognized and gave voice to the profound “special relationship” that binds Britain and America together. Coming to power at a time of deep crisis in the struggle against Communism, their renewed conservatism succeeded in winning the Cold War and freeing foreign nations from oppression, in addition to liberating their own economies, which had long been shackled by socialism. In both countries, these triumphs shifted political discourse rightward for a generation.

Yet the Reagan-Thatcher moment, for all its success, failed to touch the depths of the political culture in America and Britain. Confronted by a university system devoted almost exclusively to socialist and liberal theorizing, their movement at no point commanded the resources needed to revive Anglo-American conservatism as a genuine force in fundamental arenas such as jurisprudence, political theory, history, philosophy, and education—disciplines without which a true restoration was impossible. Throughout the conservative revival of the 1980s, academic training in government and political theory, for instance, continued to maintain its almost complete boycott of conservative thinkers such as Fortescue, Coke, Selden, and Hale, just as it continued its boycott of the Bible as a source of English and American political principles. Similarly, academic jurisprudence remained a subject that is taught as a contest among abstract liberal theories. Education of this kind meant that a degree from a prestigious university all but guaranteed one’s ignorance of the Anglo-American conservative tradition, but only a handful of conservative intellectual figures, most visibly Russell Kirk and Irving Kristol, seem to have been alert to the seriousness of this problem. On the whole, the conservative revival of those years remained resolutely focused on the pressing policy issues of the day, leaving liberalism virtually unchallenged as the worldview that conservatives were taught at university or when they picked up a book on the history of ideas.

This is why conservative discourse today is so often just a pastiche of liberal themes and principles, with the occasional reference to Burke or Hamilton thrown in as a rhetorical ornament. We have not made the effort necessary to understand the intellectual and political heritage for which these great Anglo-American conservatives stood their ground, to know what it was and what it was about. As a consequence, conservatives remain uprooted from the wisdom of past generations and speak so unpersuasively when they talk of passing the tradition to future generations. For one cannot pass on what one does not have.

There may have been genuine advantages to soft-pedaling differences between conservatives and liberals until the 1980s, when all the strength that could be mustered had to be directed toward defeating Communism abroad and socialism at home. But we are no longer living in the 1980s. Those battles were won, and today we face new dangers. The most important among these is the inability of countries such as America and Britain, having been stripped of the nationalist and religious traditions that held them together for centuries, to sustain themselves while a universalist liberalism continues, year after year, to break down these historic foundations of their strength. Under such conditions of internal disintegration, there is a palpable danger that liberal rationalism, having established itself in a monopoly position in the state, will drive a broad public that cannot accept its regimented view of the world into the hands of genuinely authoritarian movements.

Liberals of various persuasions have, in their own way, sought to warn us about this, from Fareed Zakaria’s “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” in Foreign Affairs (1997) to the Economist’s “Illiberalism: Playing with Fear” (2016) and Commentary’s “Illiberalism: The Worldwide Crisis,” mentioned earlier. These and many other publications have made intensive use of the term illiberal as an epithet to describe those who have strayed from the path of Lockean liberalism. In so doing, they divide the political universe into two: there are liberals—those decent persons who are willing to exercise reason in the universally accepted manner and come to the appropriate liberal conclusions; and there are those others—the “illiberals,” who, out of ignorance, resentment, or some atavistic hatred, will not get with the program. When things are divided up this way, the latter group ends up including everyone from Brexiteers, Trump supporters, Evangelical Christians, and Orthodox Jews to dictators, Iranian ayatollahs, and Nazis. Once things are framed in this way, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that everyone in that second group is in some degree a threat that must be combated.

We conservatives, however, have our own preferred division of the political universe: one in which Anglo-American conservatism appears as a distinct political category that is obviously neither authoritarian nor liberal. With the rest of the Anglo-American conservative tradition, we uphold the principles of limited government and individual liberties. But we also see clearly (again, in keeping with our conservative tradition) that the only forces that give the state its internal coherence and stability, holding limited government in place while staving off authoritarianism, are our nationalist and religious traditions. These nationalist and religious principles are not liberal. They are prior to liberalism, in conflict with liberalism, and presently being destroyed by liberalism.

Our world desperately needs to hear a clear conservative voice. Any continued confusion of conservative principles with the liberalism on our Left, or with the authoritarianism on our Right, can only do harm. The time has arrived when conservatives must speak in our own voice again. In doing so, we will discover that we can provide the political foundations that so many now seek, but have been unable to find.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume I, Number 2 (Summer 2017): 219–46.


Fortescue is now available in an easily readable edition, transcribed in modern English spelling. See John Fortescue, On the Laws and Governance of England, ed. Shelley Lockwood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

2 Our account diverges here from that of Leo Strauss, who presents Rousseau as a critic of Locke and asserts that “the first crisis of modernity occurred in the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.” See Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 252. Strauss is right in seeing Rousseau, especially in his Discourses, as demanding a return to the cohesive community of classical antiquity, as well as to the virtues that are required to maintain such social cohesion and to wage wars in defense of the community. But it is a mistake to regard this demand as initiating “the first crisis of modernity.” What is now regarded as political modernity is more accurately regarded as emerging from the conservative tradition represented by Fortescue, Coke, and Selden. The first crisis of modernity is that which universalist-rationalists such as Grotius and Locke initiate against this conservative tradition. In certain ways, Rousseau does side with earlier conservative tradition, which likewise held that Lockean rationalism would make social cohesion impossible and destroy the possibility of virtue. But while Rousseau believed he could revive social cohesion and virtue while retaining Locke’s liberal axioms as a point of departure, Anglo-American conservatism regards this entire effort as futile. The intractable contradictions in Rousseau’s thought derive from the fact that there is no way to square this circle. Once liberal axioms are accepted, there is neither any need for, nor any possibility of, the social cohesion and virtue that Rousseau insists are necessary. Rousseau’s “civil religion” and his nation-state have no hope of playing the role that the traditional religion and nation play in conservative thought. These are ersatz creations of the Lockean universe, in which Rousseau’s thought remains imprisoned.

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