You talk about making this article cheaper by reducing its price in the market. . . . But suppose in so doing you have rendered your country weaker against a foreign foe; suppose you have demoralized thousands of your fellow-countrymen and leave some discontent between one class of society and another, your article is tolerably dear, I take it after all. Is not the real price enhanced to every Christian and patriot a hundred-fold?
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1833
As I write this, on the eve of the 2020 election, a determined conservative bloc eagerly awaits President Trump’s departure—and even more eagerly hopes for an end to the ideological ferment within the Republican Party that Trump’s surprise 2016 victory seemed to usher in. Foremost among these voices are the laissez-faire purists who worry about Trump’s tariffs, trade wars, and other interventions in supposedly free markets. Once Trump is out of the White House, this “establishment” believes, they can reclaim their movement and cleanse their creed.
But these market fundamentalists are wrong, regardless of who wins the election. The reemergence of “economic nationalism” does not represent a departure from the Anglo-American conservative tradition; it is a long overdue return to it. It is the doctrinaire libertarians and neoliberals who represent something outside of—and increasingly at odds with—traditional conservatism.
Since the days when Edmund Burke was palling around with Adam Smith, conservatives have revered the free market and recognized it as the most powerful engine of national prosperity. But they’ve always seen it as the best means to an end, and never mistook it for an end in itself. Conservatives have thus felt free to depart from orthodox laissez-faire doctrines when necessary in the service of larger goals.
And what are these larger goals? From the movement’s birth, the overriding purpose of conservative politics has been the flourishing of the nation: the health of its institutions, the unity of its people, and the strength of its economy and military. Anglo-American conservatives have always been nationalists. British conservatives from Burke to Churchill pursued the national interest through the empire into which they were born. Their American cousins cherished the ideal of the independent republic. But across the oceans and generations, Anglo-American conservatives have made national greatness their clear and overriding objective.
The unique circumstances of the Cold War worked to obscure this traditional focus. The imperatives of fighting communism abroad and socialism at home combined to elevate laissez-faire to a position of ideological prominence it had not previously occupied. At the same time, America’s industrial ascendancy seemed to guarantee that free trade would produce enormous economic benefits with little downside. But the Cold War ended decades ago, and the tension between nationalism and laissez-faire has reemerged. There will be times when we cannot have both.
Rediscovering and reclaiming conservatism’s true north works a critical ideological transformation. It frees us from submission to abstract ideology. It enables a return to traditional conservative prudence. It empowers us to contemplate a broader range of policies to strengthen the nation and empower our fellow citizens.
Most importantly, reconnecting with conservatism’s nationalist roots can rouse us from our slumber. Too many movement conservatives have watched China’s rise with surprising complacency. They’re confident that the same remedies that vanquished the Soviet Union will once again win the day. They shouldn’t be. Conservative statesmen going back to Edmund Burke (and before, actually) have employed far more effective tools with which to meet this very different set of challenges. Their example is more relevant today than ever.
Edmund Burke and the Conservative Tradition
Edmund Burke was a contemporary of Adam Smith. These two great men met, exchanged ideas, and expressed mutual admiration. Burke read Smith’s Wealth of Nations shortly after its release and endorsed it. For his part, Smith is said to have recognized Burke as “the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do.”
Beyond merely praising Smith, Burke wrote his own free market manifesto, Thoughts and Letters on Scarcity. Addressed to the British prime minister, this document makes a determined argument against offering public payments that would have effectively guaranteed workers a minimum wage.
Despite these positions, however, the frequent efforts to claim Burke as some sort of prophet of laissez-faire completely misunderstand the man and misrepresent his thought. Burke’s deep appreciation for free markets never hardened into an ideological absolute. Quite the contrary, Burke was famously suspicious of all abstract ideologies. And he was downright hostile to any effort to reshape society in the name of such doctrines. He instead advocated prudence in policymaking, basing decisions on the close analysis of specific circumstances. As he noted, “Circumstances . . . give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing color, and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.”
Rather than obsess over the means, Burke focused on the end. And for Burke the end—the great goal of his politics—was clear: the flourishing of his nation, what he once called “the grandeur and glory of England.” Burke was a British nationalist who was far more interested in the wealth of his nation than in the Wealth of Nations.
In Burke’s day, Britain governed a global empire, and its economy was closely intertwined with those of its colonies. Burke thus pursued his nationalist agenda from within a mercantilist framework, namely by supporting restrictions on colonial trade. While such restrictions are no longer relevant in a postcolonial era, Burke’s example most certainly is. Throughout his career, Burke advocated policies to promote the national interest that departed from orthodox laissez-faire.
In 1757, Burke published a book with William Burke, called An Account of the European Settlements in America. The sections on the French and Spanish colonies are mostly descriptive. But when the Burkes turn their attention to Britain’s American colonies, they cannot resist advocating policy. Noting that “Restraints upon trade are nice things; and ought to be well considered,” the Burkes make the case for an enlightened mercantilism.
The Burkes argue that Britain’s colonies should be permitted to ship their goods directly to foreign markets. But they urge the government to take the “wise precaution” of forcing these ships to stop at English ports on their way home. This would prevent the “great danger” of ships returning to colonial ports laden with foreign manufactures. They also describe as “a very prudent regulation” the decision to place “a considerable duty” upon the rum, sugar, and molasses that American ships were importing from French islands so as to enable English sugar plantations to better compete.
The Burkes recommend that the colonies be discouraged from developing industries that compete with British manufacturing. But they urge the government to “grudge no expense” in supporting the development of noncompetitive colonial industries. They praise a policy of providing “premiums” (i.e., subsidies) for the production of indigo in North Carolina. They suggest providing a similar premium as part of “a proper, well studied and vigorously executed scheme” to incubate the production of silk in North Carolina. And after noting that shipbuilding was on the decline in Boston, they urge “an inquiry into the cause of that decay and the most effectual measures to retrieve the affairs of so valuable a province.”
Over fifteen years later, in 1774, Burke was still an outspoken mercantilist. That year he gave a famous speech in Parliament entitled On American Taxation. Burke’s purpose here was to identify and remedy Britain’s sins in governing her American colonies. Yet Burke is unapologetic in his support for the Navigation Acts, the multiple acts of Parliament that gave Britain a commercial monopoly over her colonies. Burke acknowledges that these acts put America in a position of “commercial servitude” to Britain. Yet he maintains that this was nevertheless “a happy and a liberal condition.” Burke instead blames the rising tensions on Parliament’s decision to go beyond these traditional trade restrictions and tax the colonies for the purpose of raising revenue.
The following year, in his 1775 speech On Conciliation with America, Burke reiterates his support for these trade laws. He again acknowledges that “they do confine, and they do greatly narrow, the market for the Americans.” But he nevertheless states that “I am sure they are still, in many ways, of great use to us; and in former times, they have been of the greatest.”
The next year, 1776, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations. Did the power of this work persuade Burke to abandon his lifelong convictions? There’s no evidence that this was the case. In fact, the exact opposite seems to have occurred. In the book’s first edition, Smith criticized a 1772 effort to update but largely maintain the Corn Laws, a system of import duties and export subsidies for various grains designed to protect Britain’s agricultural sector. Burke had led the effort to pass this legislation, and there’s reason to believe that he complained to Smith about his analysis. In the second edition of The Wealth of Nations, Smith added language to soften his critique. Elsewhere in the book, Smith readily acknowledges multiple instances in which import duties and export subsidies would be justified.
Yet while he supported government activism in pursuit of national flourishing, Burke saw clear limits to the role that government should play in the lives of individual citizens. In Thoughts and Details on Scarcity, Burke wrote that government should “confine itself” to a number of public tasks, including achieving “public security” and “public prosperity” (covering both his mercantilism and his support for the Corn Laws). But Burke was adamant that government should not go beyond such measures to redistribute wealth in an effort to engineer equality of outcomes.
Disraeli and One Nation Conservatism
After Burke’s death, both Tories and Whigs picked over his legacy and ideas. It would take decades for his thinking to be transformed into a “conservative” philosophy of governance. In 1834, Tory leader Robert Peel officially changed his party’s name to the “Conservative Party.” But he soon pivoted away from some of Burke’s core policies and preferences. It was Peel’s rival and successor, Benjamin Disraeli, who built a British conservative movement upon the foundation of Burke’s thought while updating it for a new era.
Like Burke, Disraeli had a pronounced preference for free markets. He often boasted that the Tory Party invented free markets. But, also like Burke, he never elevated this preference to an ideological absolute. When it came to tariffs, for example, Disraeli asked, “What is Protection but an expedient? And if it be an expedient, it must depend on circumstances, and could not therefore be condemned or approved by . . . abstract dogmas.”
If protection was an expedient, then what greater goal did it expedite? For Disraeli, the answer could not have been clearer. Like Burke before him, Disraeli was an unabashed British nationalist. “My politics are described by one word,” Disraeli proudly proclaimed, “and that word is England.”
In his pursuit of national greatness, Disraeli faced a uniquely challenging set of circumstances. The industrial revolution was in full swing, and it was transforming British society in unprecedented ways. Agricultural laborers were leaving their farms for factories in the cities. A large urban working class was emerging. These workers were living in often horrendous conditions. And they were making political demands.
First and foremost, the urban poor wanted lower food prices. Since Burke’s days, the “Corn Laws” had imposed protective tariffs on imported grains to ensure a sufficient minimum price. But now the power of food growers was being eclipsed by that of consumers, and failed harvests added to the urgency of the moment. In 1846, Prime Minister Peel decided to break with longstanding Tory policy and support the repeal of the Corn Laws.
Disraeli disagreed. He first rose to political prominence in his energetic effort to preserve these protective tariffs. For Disraeli, the issues at stake were much deeper than the price of grain. He believed that the Corn Laws were critical to preserving an ancient pillar of Britain’s social order: the landed aristocracy and the rural communities that depended upon them. Like Burke, he saw great peril in moving too quickly to alter longstanding social arrangements.
Disraeli lost this battle. An alliance of free trade Conservatives, Whigs, and Radicals joined together to repeal the Corn Laws. But the rift this debate tore open in Conservative ranks was beyond repair. Peel and his free trade conservatives ended up joining with the Whigs to form the Liberal Party. This left Disraeli and his fellow protectionists in full control of the Conservative Party.
In time, Disraeli reconciled himself to the repeal of the Corn Laws. But even more fundamental challenges continued to loom. The workers who demanded cheap bread were also demanding the right to vote. Most Conservatives believed that such a move would doom their party to political irrelevance. The Conservatives had always represented the landed aristocracy, and they were able to win elections when the right to vote was limited to property owners. But how would such a party survive once the working class was able to overwhelm the aristocrats at the ballot box?
Disraeli saw a path forward. In what was perhaps his greatest political insight, he recognized that the English working classes were actually conservative in the “purest and loftiest” sense: they “are proud of belonging to a great country, and wish to maintain its greatness—that they are proud of belonging to an Imperial country, and are resolved to maintain . . . their empire—that they believe on the whole that the greatness and the empire of England are to be attributed to the ancient institutions of the land.” He thus saw that the workers could be enlisted as a new force “to maintain the ancient throne and immemorial monarchy of England.”
Armed with this understanding, Disraeli convinced his fellow Conservatives to support the Reform Act of 1867, which effectively extended the franchise to the working class. The Conservatives were not immediately rewarded for this gesture; they were trounced in elections held the very next year. But under Disraeli’s leadership a new dynamic had been introduced, and a new appeal was being made. Eventually, Disraeli was vindicated. Instead of gradually fading from the political scene, the Conservatives won an impressive comeback victory in 1874. Working-class voters would be a major pillar of Conservative support for decades to come.
Disraeli had long argued that the Liberals cared only about business owners and their bottom line. It was the Conservatives, he claimed, who were devoted to the nation and the welfare of all the classes that comprised it. Now that he was prime minister, Disraeli had an opportunity to prove his point.
In 1875, Disraeli’s government passed a series of reform measures aimed at improving the lives of the working class. Central among these were laws designed to address the great power imbalance between factory owners and their employees. The Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act permitted trade unions to engage in legalized picketing. The Employers and Workmen Act removed the threat of criminal charges in cases where workers breached their employment contracts. Other measures addressed worker housing, public health, and even the environment.
These were unprecedented measures. Alexander Macdonald, one of the first members of the Labour Party to be elected to Parliament, went so far as to say, “The Conservative Party have done more for the working classes in five years than the Liberals have in fifty.”
But like Burke, Disraeli saw clear limits to how far the government should intervene in markets. Disraeli made a critical distinction between permissive and compulsory legislation. And he argued that “permissive legislation is the characteristic of the free people.” Disraeli was thus willing to empower workers to pursue their interests on a more level playing field. But he never supported redistributing wealth in an effort to achieve equality of outcomes.
Alexander Hamilton and American Conservatism
Alexander Hamilton did more than any other American to plant Burke’s ideas firmly in American soil. Although separated by an ocean, these two contemporaries shared a worldview so similar that it’s often difficult to distinguish between their thoughts and statements. As Hamilton scholar Michael Federici noted, “Hamilton was as close to being America’s version of Edmund Burke as there was.”
Hamilton, like Burke, was suspicious of abstract theories and preferred practical systems tested by history. As he noted during the debate over a national bank, “in all questions of this nature, the practice of mankind ought to have great weight against the theories of individuals.” For these reasons, Hamilton shared Burke’s revulsion at the French Revolution. As Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow noted, “No American was to expend more prophetic verbiage in denouncing the French Revolution than Alexander Hamilton.”
These similarities extended to the realm of economics. Like Burke, Hamilton had studied and largely agreed with Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. He certainly saw free markets and free trade as an ideal to work towards. But, like Burke, Hamilton was animated by another, more important political priority. When he believed that the pursuit of this priority necessitated compromising these economic principles, he was repeatedly willing to do so.
What was Hamilton’s overriding objective? Hamilton, like Burke, was a nationalist. He dedicated his life to achieving the independence, security, and prosperity of his nation. As he fought the American Revolution alongside George Washington, Hamilton experienced firsthand the challenges that came from a weak central government and inadequate industrial base. By the time the United States won its independence, Hamilton had been transformed into an advocate of a strong federal government that could act to protect the nation and promote its prosperity.
The economic circumstances facing Hamilton’s America were quite different from those of Burke’s Britain. Hamilton’s challenge was not to preserve the existing mercantilist arrangements but to break free from them. In particular, Hamilton dedicated himself to building the infrastructure—financial and physical—that would facilitate the development of American commerce and industry. He thus supported the creation of a national bank as well as investments in internal improvements such as roads and canals.
Most importantly, Hamilton believed that the government had to actively support strategic new industries. He noted that Britain and other nations provided “bounties, premiums and other aids” to their industries. And he recognized that such foreign interventions posed “the greatest obstacle of all to the successful prosecution of a new branch of industry in a country in which it was before unknown.”
From his position as the nation’s first secretary of the treasury, Hamilton wrote a seminal document, his Report on Manufactures, in which he advocated for an industrial policy for the United States. Here he made the case for providing “bounties” (subsidies) for infant industries. He also advocated protecting these industries with tariffs when needed. And he anticipated—and refuted—the standard laissez-faire critique of such policies:
If the system of perfect liberty to industry and commerce were the prevailing system of nations, the arguments which dissuade a country in the predicament of the United States from the zealous pursuit of manufactures would doubtless have great force. . . . But the system which has been mentioned is far from characterizing the general policy of nations.
Like Burke, Hamilton saw clear limits to the proper role of government. While he sought to level the playing field on which we confronted foreign competitors, he never advocated leveling society back at home. And while Hamilton saw government support as critical to launching new industries, he never envisioned that it would turn into longer-term corporate welfare. He wrote that continuing bounties “on manufactures long established” would “almost always be of questionable policy” because a presumption would arise in such cases that there were “natural and inherent impediments to success.”
Henry Clay and the American System
Henry Clay began his political life as a Jeffersonian Republican favoring states’ rights and a narrowly circumscribed federal government. Then he was mugged by reality.
If the American Revolution forged Hamilton into an American nationalist, the War of 1812 worked a similar conversion upon Clay. As Clay put it, America had been “insulted, outraged, and spoliated upon by almost all Europe. . . . We had submitted too long and too much.” He was determined to prevent this from ever happening again. Clay dedicated the rest of his political career to building “the whole physical power of the country” in order to achieve “national greatness and prosperity.”
Clay’s nationalist program had a clear military component. But Clay devoted the lion’s share of his efforts to building up the nation’s economy. Like Hamilton, Clay recognized that America’s top trading partners were actively intervening in the free market to boost their industries. He therefore advocated an aggressive government program to prevent “the inevitable prostration of our industry which must ensue from the action of foreign policy and legislation.”
Clay eventually packaged his economic policies in a comprehensive program he named the “American System.” This plan had three core components: Clay called for strengthening America’s financial infrastructure, primarily through the creation of a second national bank. He supported developing the nation’s physical infrastructure through federally funded internal improvements—turnpikes, roads, and canals—that would “facilitate intercourse between all parts of the country” and “bind and connect us together.” And he called for protecting America’s infant industries behind a wall of protective tariffs.
Like Hamilton, Clay anticipated and rebutted the standard laissez-faire critique. His opponents, he noted, called for “free trade.” But, Clay claimed, “It never has existed; it never will exist.” Since opening America’s ports to foreign products would not be reciprocated, he argued, such steps would ultimately doom American industry and force a reversion to America’s traditional role as a supplier of raw materials. As Clay put it:
Gentlemen deceive themselves. It is not free trade that they are recommending to our acceptance. It is, in effect, the British colonial system that we are invited to adopt; and if their policy prevail, it will lead, substantially, to the recolonization of these States under the commercial dominion of Great Britain.
Clay didn’t pretend that the protection he supported would come without a price. He simply argued that this price was well worth paying. “There is a pleasure—a pride,” he noted, “in being clad in the production of our own families. Others may prefer the clothes of Leeds and of London, but give me those of Humphreysville.”
During his years as Speaker of the House, Clay achieved much of his program. The Second Bank of the United States was chartered in 1816. That same year he secured passage of the first truly protective tariff in the nation’s history; in 1824, he was able to increase these tariff rates even higher.
But Clay saw much of this progress reversed in 1828 when his great rival, Andrew Jackson, was elected president. Jackson closed the bank and lowered the tariffs. Clay and his allies created the Whig Party to challenge President Jackson and his policies. The Whigs later merged with antislavery Democrats and others to form the Republican Party. It would take the election of the first Republican president for Clay to enjoy his ultimate, posthumous victory.
There’s no evidence that Lincoln read Burke or Hamilton. But he certainly shared their preference for pragmatism over abstract theories. “Mr. Lincoln was a very patient man generally,” his law partner William Herndon once wrote, “but if you wished to be cut off at the knee, just go at Lincoln with abstractions.”
Lincoln’s connection to Henry Clay was more immediate. Clay was Lincoln’s political hero and role model. Lincoln famously referred to Clay as his “beau ideal of a statesman, the man for whom I fought all my humble life.” In 1832, in his first speech as a candidate for public office, Lincoln introduced himself as follows: “My politics are short and sweet, like the old woman’s dance. I am in favor of a national bank. I am in favor of the internal improvements system and a higher protective tariff.” These, of course, were the three pillars of Henry Clay’s American System.
While Lincoln enthusiastically embraced Clay’s program, however, he did not share his hero’s motives. Lincoln was not transformed by war or external threats. He rarely spoke in terms of competition with other nations. Instead, Lincoln’s worldview had been forged by the crushing poverty he suffered as a child and the bleak prospects he faced as a young adult. Lincoln’s experiences taught him that hard work alone was not enough to escape this kind of region-wide poverty. The government needed to intervene to connect these economic backwaters to finance and markets.
Lincoln’s nationalism would therefore focus inward. His dreams of American greatness involved creating a nation in which everyone had the opportunity to rise from poverty. As historian Gabor Boritt noted, Lincoln likely spoke more about economics than slavery over the course of his public life and he “made economics the most substantial part of his campaigning, legislative labors, and private studies outside his legal work.” (While effectively limited to whites at first, Lincoln would eventually expand his economic vision to include the slaves so brutally denied the opportunity to rise.)
This economic focus was on clear display during Lincoln’s nine years in the Illinois House of Representatives. Having run on a platform of internal improvements, Lincoln worked hard to enact his program. In 1835, he actively supported the creation of a state bank that could fund internal improvements and economic development. In 1837, Lincoln led a successful effort to secure state funding for an unprecedented package of internal improvements including the construction of railroads, canals, and roads.
Lincoln’s timing could not have been worse. The economy soon crashed in what came to be known as the Panic of 1837. Public funding dried up. Yet despite mounting public debt and increasing public opposition, Lincoln fought to salvage as much of his infrastructure plan as he could. And he almost paid for his political courage with his career. When he ran for reelection in 1840, Lincoln came in last among the victorious candidates. In 1841, he decided to retire from the state legislature.
Despite these setbacks, Lincoln actively campaigned for his hero, Henry Clay, in the 1844 presidential election. Now that internal improvements were unpopular, Lincoln chose to emphasize another key prong of Clay’s American System—the protective tariff—as his main campaign issue. Echoing Clay, Lincoln argued that the burdens of such tariffs would fall chiefly on the “wealthy and luxurious few whose pride, whose abundance of means prompt them to spurn the manufactures of our own country, and to strut in British cloaks and coats and pantaloons.”
By the time he was elected president in 1860, Lincoln was representing a new Republican Party facing the urgent challenge of Southern secession. Fighting the Civil War to preserve the union would become Lincoln’s overwhelming focus and burden. Yet he nevertheless took advantage of his victory and Republican majorities in Congress to finally enact his Whig economic program.
During his administration, Lincoln supported a series of tariff increases that raised protection to unprecedented levels. He supported the National Banking Act, which revived the national bank and created a unified national currency for the first time in America’s history. And despite the great expense of the war, Lincoln supported a series of ambitious internal improvement projects, including the Pacific Railroad Acts, the Land Grant College Act, and the Homestead Act.
These policies together with massive public spending on the war combined to transform the economy beyond what Lincoln could have dreamed. The Northern economy grew rapidly in each year of the war, and it continued on this new trajectory after the war had ended. By the close of the nineteenth century, Northern industry was beginning to surpass that of Great Britain.
As America emerged as the world’s leading industrial power, it would have little need for the policies that Hamilton, Clay, and Lincoln had employed in more challenging times. Conservatives increasingly pursued laissez-faire as both an ideological preference and a practical policy. It would take dramatic shifts—and the rise of new rivals—for nationalist economic policies to once again become relevant.
The American System Today
During the Civil War, Lincoln never really distinguished between his economic and military objectives; he saw these two causes as intertwined. In fact, he repeatedly invoked his economic vision as a rationale for fighting the war. In Lincoln’s first July 4th message to Congress, for example, he declared:
This is essentially a People’s contest. On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders—to clear the path of laudable pursuit for all—to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.
The challenges America faces today are certainly different from those it confronted in the bygone eras of Hamilton, Clay, and Lincoln. Yet the parallels are surprisingly strong.
Hamilton and Clay recognized that Britain’s aggressive industrial and trade policies fueled enterprises that threatened to crush their American competitors. They dedicated themselves to enacting policies that would enable American industry to better compete. Today, an ascendant China is assuming the role of Great Britain through its neo-mercantilist trade policy and generous support of domestic industry. To a large extent, the artificial weights pulling down so many of our fellow Americans were made in China.
Lincoln supplemented his predecessors’ views with his insight that many of the largest barriers to opportunity at home were regional; large swaths of the Midwest were too disconnected from commercial centers for their residents to rise from subsistence. Thanks to Lincoln and others, the Midwest is now well connected to ports and markets. But much of the region no longer produces anything to ship to these destinations. For these Americans, the path to laudable pursuit is often blocked by the rubble of abandoned factories.
For the first time in more than a century, we’re facing economic challenges similar to those faced by America’s nationalist heroes. We’d be wise to study their solutions. The policies they proposed do not abandon free trade; they correct for unfair trade. They do not forsake free markets; they level a playing field that others have already tilted. And such policies do not betray conservatism; they reconnect us with the nationalist goals that have always been the movement’s beating heart.
If conservatives fail to act, these problems will not simply fade away. At this juncture, let us not fail our fellow citizens by undue fealty to abstract ideologies or the reflexive embrace of outdated policies. The conservative mind can contemplate more effective solutions. The conservative soul longs to accomplish nobler goals. And as is always the case for conservatives, our history illuminates the path forward.