The First Conservatives: The Constitutional Challenge to Progressivism

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Modern conservatives look to a variety of historical figures for guidance as they confront progressive liberalism.  Some are from the 1700’s and 1800’s, including Edmund Burke, the Founders, and Abraham Lincoln.  Others, like Russell Kirk, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Ronald Reagan, are from the postwar era.  Strangely enough, conservatives rarely turn to the original opponents of progressivism, even though that would seem like the first place to look.  And as historian Jonathan O’Neill writes in a new paper, American conservatism was hardly on hiatus during the progressive ascendancy.

Opponents of Progressivism held a wide range of beliefs about government and society, but one group of them refused to jettison the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.  These “constitutional conservatives” included President William Howard Taft, Secretary of State Elihu Root, and a group of intellectuals and politicians who formed the National Association for Constitutional Government (NACG).  In their common commitment, they contrasted with not only the Progressives but also those conservatives who were willing to abandon the founding documents in favor of other ideologies.

So what did Taft, Root, and the NACG believe?

  • Our Constitution recognizes that people have natural rights that do not come from the government.  Instead, the government is tasked only with protecting them from “arbitrary or illegitimate authority.”
  • Our government is one of limited powers, both because the people retain sovereignty at all times and because the Founders recognized that human nature inclines people to abuse power.
  • Conservatism insists on “equal rights for all” and “special privileges for none.”  This means that laws should not single out groups for special treatment, either negative or positive.
  • Being a constitutional conservative requires a commitment to republicanism rather than direct democracy.  A republic, unlike a democracy, allows for beneficial “distance and delay between public opinion and the creation of law.”
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Three other schools of conservatives abandoned American first principles during this period, which hampered their response to Progressivism.  Southern agrarian conservatives ended up marginalized as apologists for secession or co-opted by the federal gravy train as they secured special treatment for the South.  Burkean traditionalists never managed to overcome their aristocratic tendencies and reconcile themselves to self-government, a fundamental principle of the Constitution.  And just as they denounced all other existing forms of government, radical libertarians like Albert Jay Nock rejected even the American experiment in limited government as illegitimate.  Each of these groups challenged all or part of the Founding’s emphasis on self-government and natural rights, with deleterious effects.

Today, it is easy to tell what conservatives are against – the left.  It’s harder to say what the diverse movement is for.  Just as the NACG and other constitutionalists from a century ago united behind the principles of our Constitution and Declaration, modern conservatives of all stripes must unite behind America’s first principles.  After all, they are ultimately what the movement seeks to conserve.

Brian Lipshutz currently is a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit:

Source material can be found at this site.

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