This book might have been called “Forgotten Figures in Real American His­tory”—a social and intellectual reality, tradition, and political-economic program whose life ended, effectively, in 1861, though many dedicated public and literary men (including most of the contributors to this journal) have devoted—or rather sacrificed—themselves to resuscitating it, or at least to keeping its memory alive over the past century and a half.  American conservatism, as Brion McClanahan and Clyde Wilson understand it, can be summed up in the words independence, liberty, free trade, strictly limited government, and constitutionalism, as the Jeffersonian and states’-rights Whig tradition understood these things.  In Wilson’s and McClanahan’s opinion, the last American president who saw the U.S. Constitution as a restraint on government was Grover Cleveland, the “last Jeffersonian president.”  Grover Cleveland’s second term in the White House was a long, long time ago—in political terms, an eon.  The American conservative tradition exists on three levels: the metaphysical, the dispositional (as Russell Kirk insisted), and the constitutional.  Forgotten Conservatives in American History does justice to all three of them.

Forgotten Conservatives comprises relatively short but pithy biographical essays of 16 Old American conservatives from the colonial period down to the present day.  These include James Jackson, John Taylor of Caroline, James Fenimore Cooper, Condy Raguet (the Philadelphia economist in the early decades of the 19th century), John C. Calhoun, John Tyler, Abel P. Upshur, Grover Cleveland, William Graham Sumner, E.L. Godkin, H.L. Mencken, Lindbergh pére and fils, William Faulkner, Sam Ervin, and M.E. Bradford, all of whose careers and works epitomized and defended what deserves to be identified, simply and unqualifiedly, as the American tradition throughout the colonial period and the era of the Old Republic that followed it.  (It is refreshing to discover that the publisher apparently did not pressure the authors to include at least one female subject among the male majority.  Or perhaps the oversight is attributable to the fact of not one stone having been left unturned by academic historians in the past half-century to ensure that not a single woman who ever achieved a profile higher than a flea on a dog’s back should pass unremembered in the annals of American history, including the many unmemorable ones.)

The dominant impression left upon the reader of this book will likely be a tragic or philosophical one (or perhaps, as in my case, both), depending on his mind and temperament.  This is because anyone who has any knowledge of, or sense for, history at all will immediately perceive how clearly the Old American republican tradition was doomed—not because it contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction, but because the histories of nations have followed an observable and remarkably consistent pattern of development, as described by (among many other authors) Bertrand de Jouvenel.  The Founding Fathers were, of course, alive to the shape of this historical trajectory, well read as they were in Roman history, and many or most of them expected that the young United States would in time be shaped by it.  (That is why the Jeffersonians strove so mightily against the Federalists.)  John Adams, for example, believed that limited monarchy is a thing found in nature, and wrote that Americans were suited only to “Aristo-Democratical Monarchy”; Benjamin Rush predicted that the American people would become so corrupt within a century that absolute monarchy would be required to govern them.  Similarly, it was not Tocqueville who wrote of the “tyranny . . . realized . . . in a democratic state . . . when a man’s neighbors are his masters; when the ‘ethical power of public opinion’ bears down upon him at all hours and as to all matters . . . ”  That was William Graham Sumner, but Tocqueville had half-predicted the same thing for American democracy decades before—at about the same time that Fenimore Cooper complained that “It is a besetting vice of democracies to substitute publick opinion for law.  This is the usual manner in which masses of men exhibit their tyranny.”

“To me,” John Taylor wrote, “this new notion of a constitution by implication is . . . exactly like no Constitution at all; nor has it been proved to my satisfaction, that principles ought to be lost in verbal definitions . . . ”  By mid-century, John Stuart Mill, on the other side of the Atlantic, was observing that the U.S. Constitution was “all sail and no anchor,” while Walter Bagehot ridiculed the notion that a faded old state paper could serve as a governmental straitjacket for very long.  (Here, the Jeffersonians and the unreconstructed Whigs showed similar insight when they prudently—and correctly—argued that the states’ ratification of the federal government under the Constitution of 1787 was not eternal, but revocable at any time.)  Equally unrealistic was the notion that a faded old state paper could indefinitely command the respect and affection of a government of hair-splitting lawyers, on the one hand, and a restless and greedy citizenry, on the other.  The Constitution was proving a failure already by the 1830’s, if not before; not only because it had failed to address the slavery issue in a satisfactory way, but because it is the nature of all written constitutions to be talked and picked to pieces in time by rival politicians and stretched by them into a monstrous shapelessness under pressure from their democratically minded constituents continually demanding benefits delivered to them by unconstitutional means.  Bagehot, the author of a great work on the ancient unwritten constitution of his own country, could afford to be smug about the handiwork at Philadelphia, though it is difficult to see how the Americans, having left the British constitution behind, had much choice to do anything other than to write a new constitution of their own, based admittedly on elements of Roman government.

Similarly, the inevitable operations of what Jouvenel broadly termed Power, in combination with those of the new industrial age, ensured that what Americans later called the Money Power would fuse itself with the power of the federal government.  As the older, freer, and less centralized economy of England was reshaped, beginning early in the 17th century, by large commercial enterprises such as the British East India Company, chartered, subsidized, and protected by the British government, so the American economy in the 19th century merged with the federal government in a program of national banking and “internal improvements” facilitated by publicly recognized corporations that were invested with the rights of individuals and of property, favored by Hamiltonians and the nationalist party.  Governments, and the citizens they represent, being always after more—more power, more money, more goods, more services—are always disinclined to heed warnings by political economists like Condy Raguet, who, as McClanahan and Wilson explain, “had limited influence on the ensuing political conflicts because they condemned both the Whig national bankers and the Democratic state bankers.”  Hence, “In the long run Raguet failed to make much impact.  The U.S. economy developed into a permanent boom-and-bust phenomenon in which private banking interests enjoy enormous power and profit.”  In the 1840’s King Louis Philippe, whose July Monarchy (1830-48) was a successor to France’s revolutionary First Republic, helped to create a speculative bubble, encouraged by the French government’s promotion of land sales on behalf of a national railway network, that burst when the hyperproduction of iron produced a crash on the Bourse, leading to a depression that became a major contributing factor to the mostly failed revolutions of 1848.

Successful republican government encourages governmental and financial ambitions.  It encourages as well a popular tendency to inflate modest democratic theory into aggressive ideology by making democracy “a crusade rather than a legal framework of freedom”—one that is “all about power rather than freedom,” as McClanahan and Wilson write.  Fenimore Cooper saw and deplored the new democratic ideology as it operated on the domestic front, while Sen. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina condemned its influence on foreign policy when he argued specifically against invading and occupying Mexico and, more generally, against the notion of Manifest Destiny:

We make a great mistake in supposing all people are capable of self-government.  Acting under that impression, many are anxious to force free governments on all the peoples of this continent, and over the world, if they had the power.  It has been lately urged in a very respectable quarter, that it is the mission of this country to spread civil and religious liberty over the globe, and especially over this continent—even by force if necessary.  It is a sad delusion.

Calhoun laid some of the blame for the growing ideological element in American democracy on what he described as “a combination of active politicians, who are banded together under the name of Democrats or Whigs, and whose exclusive object is to obtain the control of the honors and emoluments of the Government,” that had succeeded in seizing control of that government.  But he also understood that a popular element was involved:

Our people have undergone a great change.  Their inclination is for conquest & empire, regardless of their institutions & liberty; or rather, they think they hold their liberty by a devine [sic] tenure, which no imprudence, or folly on their part, can defeat.

And so to empire, beginning with the Mexican War in the mid-1840’s, through the Spanish-American War (characterized by William Graham Sumner as “The Conquest of the United States by Spain”) half a century later, and onward, through President Wilson’s crusade to make the world safe for democracy, to conflicts in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the last two wars inspired by George W. Bush’s enthusiasm for “global democracy.”

Sumner, who believed that a concern for liberty should lie at the core of every congressional initiative and who was, as Wilson and McClanahan argue, substantially within the Jeffersonian (i.e., conservative) American tradition, nevertheless was also an eager advocate of industrialization.  Yet the industrial system is probably the single greatest enemy of republicanism, requiring as it does a countervailing power to its own Faustian strength that can be provided solely by the commensurate power of centralized government.  If knowledge is power, as Bacon said, then applied power, through its own application and the subsequent creation of a public power capable of controlling it, in this merging of industrial power with government power in a love-hate relationship between the two, results in the absolute power of the corporate industrial state.  An industrial republic, really, is a contradiction in terms.

In Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence, a kind of sequel, six years later, to I’ll Take My Stand, Frank Lawrence Owsley wrote, as quoted in Forgotten Conservatives,

It was only after Lincoln’s death that it became apparent that the “higher law” had been invoked, not to bring freedom and happiness to the slave, but rather to the great bankers, railroad magnates, and industrialists. . . . In short, it was in reality the industrialist and corporations who invoked the “higher law” to gain control of the National Government and make it over according to their desire.

Since that time, beginning in the Progressive Era, the federal government has attempted to invoke that higher law to gain control of corporate America, while continuing to allow industrialists to manipulate it to their own ends by political contributions, sweetheart deals, the revolving door between regulatory Washington and Big Business, and plain bribery on both sides.  The truth is, Big Business and Big Government have everything to gain in terms of power, profit, and efficiency by eliding themselves into one leviathan Power bloc, and the smartest people on both sides understand this.

“A Republic, if you can keep it,” said Benjamin Franklin in 1787.  But, historically, a republic has always been a relatively brief stage on the road between what came before and what is to come after—typically oligarchy.  Theoretically speaking, there is some comfort to be found in Tocqueville’s observation that, while democracy has its cultural, social, and political advantages, so, too, does monarchy.  But the modern West is wholly unsuited to monarchical government—or at least to acknowledged, formal monarchy.  John Adams and Benjamin Rush were mistaken in speculating that America might someday revert to the monarchical government she had known under the British Crown.  But it is equally certain that she will never revert to republicanism.  Meanwhile, Forgotten Conservatives helps to preserve for modern American readers the best that was thought and spoken in the Old American Republican tradition.


[Forgotten Conservatives in American History, by Brion McClanahan and Clyde N. Wilson (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company) 199 pp., $26.95]