One central question can premise this part:
Given that core components of both conservatism and liberalism were influential among the early American Founders, how can we accurately categorize them?
While I’ll leave that to my readers to decide, I think the answer will become rather clear: you can’t. That case is made immediately clear in the debate between some historians as to whether or not Thomas Jefferson was essentially a liberal or a conservative. In the vein of the first argument, Jefferson was hugely influenced by John Locke, continuously promoted civil liberties, and ultimately promoted blatantly liberal policies such as the separation of church and state, a wider democratic base, et cetera. Other historians argue that Jefferson was actually a conservative. In their line of reasoning, Jefferson supported republican principles going back as far as the Roman Republic and was pro-agrarian (a traditional vocation). By the time of Jefferson’s prolific support of all these various principles and ideals, many of his ideas were already widely accepted and promoted by many in the 13 colonies of the U.S. So did that make them conservative…or liberal?
I’ll give you the history; you can decide the answer. Here are the previous parts, if you are just now joining me:
A Review of Colonial Foundations
I want to start this section off with a quick historical comparison of some of the colonies, loosely categorized for our purposes. This will help inform the impact that these founding influences had on the later framers of the United States during the Revolutionary Era and serve as a helpful reminder more generally.
Virginia & the Aristocratic Colonies: The first colony, established in 1607, grew into an agrarian colony (mainly on tobacco) based on the aristocratic hierarchy of England. Their colonial assembly, the House of Burgesses, was made up of members chosen by the various land-holders of Virginia. Until the Revolutionary Era, Virginia looked much like the mother country, with an officially state-established and state-sponsored Anglican Church. Founders such as George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson would all herald from the aristocratic society of Virginia. Maryland and Carolina (and later Georgia) would follow a very similar structure. (And we should note that Thomas Jefferson was able to produce and get a measure passed in 1786 that ended the government-sponsored church in Virginia.)
Massachusetts & Puritan New England: Though preceded by Plymouth Colony (established 1620), Massachusetts Bay Colony (established 1630) would ultimately become the dominant New England Colony. We’re all familiar with the narrative: led by John Winthrop, thousands of Puritans migrated to Massachusetts in the 1630s to escape the restrictive religious/political environment of Anglican England. There are far too many misconceptions about Massachusetts to expound on here, but for now it is suffice to say that the Puritans were very clear about their goal of a Puritan society in which the church was state, and the state was the church. Their decentralized system of governance left politics extremely local and based in the church in each community. Members in each church were the voting members in their community. The Puritans did not intend for any separation of church and state, and quickly images of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter emerge to condemn them. Another debate for another time, to be sure, but we have to remember Winthrop was also clear in the voluntary nature of living in Massachusetts. When Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson digressed from the basics of Puritanism, they were asked to leave.
Puritan Dissenters & Rhode Island: Roger Williams himself decided to establish his own colony in 1636 at Providence (Rhode Island), established on the idea of separation of church and state. In his essay, The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience, Williams argued against the Puritan church and state unification on the argument that enforced religion was no true religion at all, and the political sword could never effectively create or maintain the true church or the true spiritual life of a believer. (Interested readers are encouraged to read his essay and the response by Puritan Minister John Cotton of Massachusetts, The Bloody Tenet Washed and Made White in the Blood of the Lamb.)
The Middle Colonies: New York (established as New Amsterdam by the Dutch in 1624), Pennsylvania and New Jersey were rather distinct from the other colonies in the propensity of their settlers to take advantage of the somewhat greater economic opportunity. Established as a trading colony by the Dutch and later taken by the British, New York boasted of significant diversity, as well as a great number of people loyal to the British crown during the American Revolution. Pennsylvania and New Jersey, gifted to the Quaker William Penn (and established 1681), were afforded extensive economic freedom. Quakers, while known for being distinctly devout, were also very much committed to economic, political and religious freedom.1 Overall, it is not surprising that New York and Philadelphia grew into the two most prosperous cities in the colonies.2
British Colonial Political Culture
It is important to note that during the 17th and 18th centuries, the British people were among some of the most free in the world in comparative terms. The natural law traditions of Great Britain were an element of pride and specific importance to those in Great Britain and her North American colonies. Much of the conflict arising in the early days of the series of crises leading up to the Revolution cited violations of the colonial “rights as Englishmen.” More specifically, according to Dr. Jason Jewell, many colonists, regardless of their colony of origin, saw themselves as heirs of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (discussed in parts 1 & 3) and of the Whiggism that followed (discussed in parts 3 & 4).3
Although a fading part of the current narrative as it is told, most colonists read and were immersed in the Bible on a regular basis, and beliefs in people as both inherently sinful and made in the image of God were common. Additionally, most of the more educated colonists (and a great many of the aristocratic planter-class of the southern colonies) were well-read in the writings of Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic. Political thinking was no doubt influenced by Cicero and Cato the Younger’s advocacy of “civic virtue” and republicanism. Republicanism, in the Roman sense, was deliberately opposed to absolutism and was premised on the idea that those with a vested interest in the political society of a country should be actively involved in the affairs of the political society.
Newspapers of the day displayed these cultural influences with constant Biblical and Roman references. The symbolism of Republican Rome was perhaps most popularly notable with the title given George Washington: “The American Cincinnatus”4. In addition, it was common for newspaper columns to be authored by someone taking a Roman name as an alias. The Federalist Papers were published under the pseudonym Publius, for example.
A key feature of this appeal to Roman republicanism was the conservatism of these Romans. Fundamental to Cicero and Cato the Younger was a desire to retain traditions and the norms of the ancestors. The conservative Romans who found their influence in American periodicals often bemoaned the loss of their traditional society and culture under the influence of the Roman emperors.
Likewise, despite modern critiques that blur the importance of the Bible in colonial society, this very importance was itself precisely conservative. We see this from New England, where the “puritan ethic” described the general adherence to a life of hard work and strong Biblical ethics, to Georgia, where even the aristocratic elites were well-versed in Scripture. Prayer and Scripture, whether with devout or nominal devotion, were a regular part of private and political life throughout the colonies. (And do not criticize me for any lack of critique with regard to issues of hypocrisy, inconsistency or slavery; that is not the purpose of this series. I merely wish to highlight historical realities that help us understand the progression of the ideas in its title.)
And note one omission from the narrative that is not by accident. Many critics today accuse the conservatism of the Founding generation to be inherently tied to the preservation of slavery. Clearly, that is not the case in any uniform sense. Yes, a distinct conservative thread would emerge in the defense of the slave-based plantation system in the south insofar as they wanted to conserve that lifestyle, but it was not applicable in a more broad sense during the founding days of the United States. (I have included a small digression related to this issue in the footnotes.5 )
The Revolutionary Crisis
Philadelphia, c. 1776
A full discussion of the series of events leading up to the Revolutionary War won’t fit in this post(!).6 Most of us are familiar from our school days with the tax crises. After the French & Indian War, a heavily indebted British government began a series of taxing measures in the colonies to help pay off war debt, as well as to help cover the costs of the British troops stationed in the colonies. Long story short, early problems caused by the taxes led to repeal of some of the taxes, but a Parliament itself divided over policy (Whigs vs. Tories) ended up instating further taxes (some of which were also repealed, and some of which were kept). Eventually, with increased resistance on the part of the colonists and increased determination to secure authority over them by Parliament, a snowball effect of events led to an acute crisis in Massachusetts. A meeting of colonial delegates (ambassadors) was called and the First Continental Congress was formed. It would be the second Continental Congress that would issue the Declaration of Independence two years later.
What was the real issue? Did the resisters oppose taxation on principle? No, not particularly. The real issue was the belief in local government. It was common belief that only the local legislative assembly had the authority to tax its constituents (we’re all familiar with the cry, “no taxation without representation.”)
This principle of localism was very conservative, drawing largely on the localism and traditions of the Middle Ages. As Tom Woods writes,
“Medieval Europe…was a radically decentralized society that featured a multiplicity of jurisdictions. … The Catholic Church, giving voice to the rich tradition of Christian social thought, recommends the principle of subsidiarity… The ideas of federalism and states’ rights, in short, hold a central and honored place within the Western tradition.”7
Finally, it should also be obvious by now the effect that liberalism had in the colonies. We are all familiar with John Locke’s influence on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. As many colonists saw it, their traditional rights as Englishmen were being violated and their traditional societal values were being challenged. All this culminated into justification for rhetorical and active resistance and ultimate rebellion against the British.
American colonists themselves split as the crisis unfolded. Many remained loyalists and gained themselves the title Tories (recall the Tory origins in England). According to Dr. Jewell, an estimated 20-30% of the colonial population supported continued union with England and the king. Though many did not support British tax policy, they nevertheless were not willing to sever ties to a country that had a better track-record than most of protecting their natural rights, as they saw it.
Of course, the Patriots won the day in bringing full rebellion to pass. Radicals such as Thomas Paine (especially in his booklets such as Common Sense) helped push American colonists into supporting independence.
I once again apologize for my lack of historical exposition. It is my full intention to expound fully in the future. For now, I intend to summarize the points that help tell the conservative/liberal story.
With the decision to fight for independence, the citizens of the 13 independent states began a process of attempting the creation of a new political system. In the wake of the declaration, they created the Articles of Confederation to form a continual Congress of delegates from the sovereign states.
I do want to explain the importance of the all-too-often overlooked Articles of Confederation, ratified as the Revolutionary War began. See the footnotes for more information on that document8, but for now, a few points. First, the Articles of Confederation were particularly deliberate in protecting the full sovereignty of each of its member states, much as the nations of the United Nations maintain their sovereignty today. As we’ve already seen, this was a conservative position. Likewise, the Articles were conservative in their guard against democracy, as was the later Constitution (though, with the implementation of the House of Representatives, to a lesser extent). Like the conservative Tories in England (though generally emphasizing different reasons), the Founders, as historians have aptly pointed out, were not supporters of direct democracy, understanding its tendency for the tyranny of the majority.9
In 1787, delegates met once again in Philadelphia to discuss changes to (or more specifically, by the design of James Madison, a full replacement of) the Articles. The Constitution emerged from its debates.
Passage of the Constitution not a foregone conclusion (something I think we don’t get taught today!), vigorous debate broke out in many states over its merits and demerits. Ultimately, these factions would become known as the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, respectively. The Federalists were proponents of ratification and the consolidated powers given the new federal government not given under the Articles. In opposition, the Anti-Federalists were concerned about losses to state sovereignty that could be brought about by the Constitution. Appeasing their concerns, the Federalists promised a Bill of Rights, the most important of which to the Anti-Federalists was the 10th Amendment. According to historians Kevin Gutzman, Brion McClanahan and many others, the promise of the 10th Amendment was pivotal in getting several key states to ratify the Constitution, including Virginia. The 10th Amendment was put in place to protect state sovereignty, and the conservative principle that promoted localism.
Thomas Jefferson (though not in the states during the ratification debates), taking the helm of the arguments against increases in the scope of the federal government’s power, is most remembered for his continued push for the separation of church and state, civil liberties, and generally more limited government. The Constitution passed despite his concerns with the document, but he later went on to demand that the federal government must be bound down by the “chains of the Constitution.” Today, many traditional conservatives, as well as libertarians, look back at Thomas Jefferson for inspiration.
John Adams, who very much could be considered a conservative in his era, was the president who signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts, violating the First Amendment and punishing those who publicly spoke poorly of Adams or the government. This was done, incidentally, about the same time that Tory William Pitt the Younger signed the British Sedition Act into law (discussed in part 3). Jefferson and Madison, in reply, authored the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, calling state “nullification” of the laws the “rightful remedy.”
So, how do we classify the Founders and their ideas? Once again, it becomes clear that categorization is not so clear. (And clearly, a complete analysis would discuss individuals and not such a generalized approach. My goal has been summary.) Nevertheless, understanding how they fit into (or didn’t) the ideas during their day will help to clarify the progression of conservative and liberal thought heading toward the current day.
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1 Quakers were, notably, some of the most passionate abolitionists well into the 1840s and 50s. They got their name from the way their services would include quiet worship time during which members were known to quiver or quake as part of their worship experience.
2 Some might attribute that claim to southern cities such as Charleston, but the wealth of Charleston was created by the land and slave-holding aristocrats and brought back into the cities. New York and Philadelphia were filled with far more entrepreneurial-generated wealth created from the unique opportunities of economic freedom.
3 Jason Jewell is the Humanities Chair at Faulkner University and blogs at The Western Tradition. His lecture series on related topics is a key source of my series. You can subscribe to Liberty Classroom for a special discount by subscribing to LCKeagy.com. Already subscribed? Send me an email or message at the LCKeagy.com Facebook page for the coupon codes.
4 Cincinnatus was a Roman farmer who, in the time of need, led Rome to victory against invasion, after which he returned to his farm, declining an opportunity to use his power and loyalty as an avenue to dictatorship. Washington, likewise, returned to Mount Vernon after becoming the hero of the Revolutionary War, despite concerns (and some proposals) that he would become an American King.
5 Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington were all slave-owners, and all admitted to a distaste of slavery in general, but were unwilling to alter their lifestyles so radically as to honor their distaste. Some who expect perfection of humanity do not think these two ideas can go hand in hand, but human nature is more complicated than these people will admit. George Washington was willing to ensure all his slaves were free upon his and his wife’s death and wrote regularly of his opposition to the institution, but, knowing that freeing his slaves would lead him into bankruptcy, was not willing to catapult himself into poverty. It was a conflict of desires, and his personal desire to avoid bankruptcy and a radical change of lifestyle for which he was not prepared won out over his desire to see slaves freed. Sure, there is plenty of critique to be made here, but that is not the place for this series.
6 I am currently working on writing a summary of these events, but my time dedicated to it has been rather limited. Subscribe to know right away when that one is finished and posted!
7 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask, ©2007, Thomas E. Woods, Jr. Ph.D, page 25.
8 I am going to be embarrassed to post this, but I did a video discussion about it for my students, which you can find here. There is nothing professional about the videography or style, and it is my first video lecture I have done! The Articles are far more important in understanding the American founding than they are almost ever given credit for. Instead, we’re always stuck with the “did they succeed, or did they fail?” discussion…and we miss the whole point.
9 John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton make this point very clear later on in the Federalist Papers.