Garland Tucker is the author of a new book, “Conservative Heroes,” which chronicles 14 leaders who shaped America—dating from the time of America’s founding to President Ronald Reagan’s administration. The author, who previously wrote, “The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge, and the 1924 Election,” spoke to The Daily Signal about his latest book and the issues he explores.
Why do you argue that conservatism is “as old as the Republic itself”?
Actually, the basic tenets of conservatism predate the American Revolution. “Conservative Heroes,” however, identifies and traces the development of American conservatism from the founding of the republic to the modern era. The lives and writings of 14 important leaders—some lesser known than others, but all of real significance—are examined.
The book in no way purports to be a comprehensive survey of American history or a definitive study of the individuals. It does provide a contiguous philosophical strand through America’s history. Different as these 14 Americans were, they were united in their commitment to a political philosophy “as old as the Republic itself.”
What are the most important fundamental principles of American conservatism?
In the introduction, I offer five fundamental principles of American conservatism.
The first is a realistic view of human nature. Conservatives believe there is nothing in human history to suggest the perfectibility of man. They believe the American republic was founded not to reform human nature but rather to establish the boundaries within which human nature might flourish.
Second, the primary roles of government are to establish order and preserve liberty. As Robert Taft said, there is “a healthy tension” between order and freedom.
Third, the role of government is strictly limited. From the earliest days of the republic, conservatives feared that any governmental power that extended beyond the barest protection of liberty could itself become a threat to liberty.
Fourth, property rights and human rights are inseparably bound together. This tenet was grounded in John Locke’s writings. John Adams wrote, “Property must be secured, or liberty cannot exist.” In a nation forged out of the wilderness by the initiative of pioneers, there was no concept of economic equality—neither as a reality or a goal.
Fifth, the social and political life of a community and a country depends on private virtues. These 14 leaders all valued the American culture and its traditions. And they lived political and personal lives of civility and integrity.
Why are these principles still relevant today?
Ideas have consequences. One’s beliefs about central issues shape his worldview and dictate his course of action. The conservative philosophy that is traced in this book has survived because it is based on fundamental truths, and throughout American history leaders such as those profiled here have supplied timeless conservative principles to the challenges and crises of their age.
What role has religion and our nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage played in guaranteeing American liberty?
Orthodox Judeo Christian theology is grounded in a view of mankind as fallen individuals prone to violence, dissolution, and aggression. Conservatives hold that it is the role of government to provide basic order for society, while preserving the maximum degree of freedom for individuals. Redemption is possible for individuals, not society as a whole.
Russell Kirk contrasted the American revolution to the French revolution: “The American revolutionaries in general held a biblical view of man and his bent toward sin, while the French in general attempted to substitute for the biblical understanding an optimistic doctrine of human goodness advanced by the philosophies of the rationalistic Enlightenment.”
“Conservative Heroes” explores the lives and ideas of 14 champions of conservative thought. What is the common thread that links these 14 men together?
The common thread linking these men is their conservative philosophy. As different as the 14 leaders were, they all had a similar worldview, and this worldview shaped their political action.
Ronald Reagan spoke for his 13 predecessors when he said, “I never thought of myself as a great man, just a man committed to great ideas. I’ve always believed that individuals should take priority over the state. History has taught me that this is what sets America apart—not to remake the world in our image, but to inspire people everywhere with a sense of their own boundless possibilities.”
What was Calvin Coolidge’s contribution to American conservatism?
In the annals of American history, Calvin Coolidge is arguably the most successful conservative president. As Paul Johnson noted, “Coolidge was the most internally consistent and single-minded of American presidents.” He approached economy in government with truly moral fervor, declaring, “I favor the policy of economy not because I wish to save money, but because I wish to save people.”
To Coolidge, it was absolutely immoral for the government to take one penny more from the taxpayer than was absolutely necessary to maintain law and order and provide the most basic services of government. He was relentless in saving taxpayers’ hard-earned money, and equally determined to reduce taxes. Through force of character and leadership, he implemented a comprehensive program of tax reduction and economy; and he consequently presided over the longest period of economic growth in American history with great popularity from the public and the press.
Why do you argue Grover Cleveland was the last Democratic president to advance conservative principles?
In 1885, Grover Cleveland brought Jeffersonian limited government back to Washington after a quarter century of federal expansion. He believed in strict constitutional limits on the expansion of government and exercised a record 584 vetoes to combat what he viewed as excessive congressional spending. He was consistent in maintaining that, “though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.”
In the years following Cleveland, William Jennings Bryan and his progressives dominated the Democratic Party. While the Democrats subsequently nominated conservatives Alton Parker (1904) and John W. Davis (1924), they never again elected a conservative president after Cleveland.
How can conservatives spark another revival in America like the “triumphant decade” of the 1980s?
This “faithful band” of 14 leaders and their consistently expounded philosophy provide an honorable history and a solid foundation upon which modern conservatives can build. This history shows that there is fundamental truth in conservatism. It has been applicable in every period of American history. There have been periods of both ascendency and decline, but the fundamental truths remain. The widespread “malaise” of the 1970s gave rise to the conservative ascendency of the 1980s. It is not too much to hope that the failures of the Obama administration may well give rise to another such conservative revival.