Re: Were Early Republicans “Conservative”?

From a Facebook discussion I’m having:

How are you defining “conservative,” James? I’ve done a lot of reading on the 19th Century, and the early Republican Party has always seemed mighty liberal to me. You know, “Radical” Republicans, valuing civil rights over property rights, redistributing wealth–40 acres and a mule and all that.

I should probably start by linking back to my first post, which sketches out my basic understanding of what conservatism is all about.  (And I should probably apologize to Brian for not yet replying to his comment.)  Now we can go from there.

I, too, have done much reading on 19th century politics, especially surrounding the War.  The only Republican president I ever saw who was more conservative than Mr. Reagan was Mr. Lincoln — fine though the line that he was forced to walk.  His fealty to the rule of law, and especially the text of the Constitution; his sturdy resistance to the Democratic doctrine (championed by Steven Douglas and the Dred Scott Court, which is now nearly ubiquitous and protected by Cooper v. Aaron) that Supreme Court rulings are binding on all constitutional actors in every respect; his steady prosecution of a bloody and wearisome war despite quagmire, incompetence, and peace riots in the streets of New York, simply because it was his necessary duty; and, above all, his reluctant determination to grant equal protection of the laws to *all* persons, even when inconvenient… all these signify a president who is living out conservative principles under the most trying circumstances imaginable. Lincoln might easily have used the war to subvert or undermine the Constitution, assail federalist principles, and establish federal police powers, as Wilson would do during World War I — but he didn’t, because, even when he feared that he might have no choice, Lincoln loved that document and all the principles it stood for.  It sings through all his writings, from the debates with Douglas to the Cooper Union address on to the First Inaugural.  Package that loyalty to the Law up in a man with a cool head, a sharp, quiet wit, and a deep humility and reverence toward the Almighty (seen best in his Second Inaugural), and you’ve got a man I’d love to see atop the GOP ticket today.

Ah, well.  So much for that.

I must admit myself considerably sympathetic to the radicals in Congress, though.  As you say, they campaigned quite ruthlessly so that all men might be treated equally under the law — the basis for the age-old Republican belief in maximizing equality of opportunity before (and, when necessary, against) equality of outcome.  They enforced this through a military occupation won by right of war — a right I don’t think political liberals have recognized since at least Armistice Day.  (It was under the auspices of military conquest that General Sherman instituted his short-lived policy of “40 Acres and a Mule.”  Though never enacted by any Congress, it would have been no sin against property to seize that owned by the vanquished and yield it to their slaves.  Still, Lincoln thought it unjust and imprudent, and I must pay him some deference.)

In short, early Republicans were social conservatives, obsessed with affirming the equal right of every human being to rise or fall on his own two feet, equally protected under the law.  They were foreign policy conservatives, willing to prosecute a war that was extraordinary in its extravagant expense, bloodletting, and the national agony it engendered, despite the fierce opposition of more short-sighted protesters — and they were willing to prosecute the occupation for as long as necessary. They were obsessed with the Constitution and its particular text, obeying that text despite the less studied broad assertions of the secessionists (and the Northern Democrats), even when that meant ignoring the unconstitutional orders of the Supreme Court when directed against the co-equal executive and legislative branches.  And it so happens that they were economic conservatives, too, defending property rights in the territories and opposed to large deficits and any but the most basic spending on national improvements like roads and the Transcontinental Railroad.  (Although, back then, EVERYONE was an economic conservative compared to everyone today save Ron Paul.)

About the only place a modern Republican would part ways with the GOP platforms of 1856, 1860, or 1864 would be on legal immigration, and then only because there is a great deal more *il*legal immigration now than there was immigration of any sort at the time.

I know much less of the GOP during the Gilded Age and the Progressive Age.  I can say that I am certainly disappointed with President T. Roosevelt, who ultimately broke away from the party anyway, but I am generally fond of President Coolidge.  I am uncertain whether I think better of modern free-trading conservative doctrine or old high-tariff conservative doctrine, but, either way, there’s clearly been a change in tarriff policy over time.

Our great sin as a party was allowing that scumbag Nixon to adopt his “Southern strategy” to win votes along purely racial lines. It was a disgusting betrayal of ancient conservative principles — but, then, betraying conservative principles, from wage controls to Watergate, was more or less Nixon’s metier.  (Not that Watergate was a “liberal” thing to do.  No, it was just a scummy thing to do.)  It has cost us far, far more than the exactly nothing we gained through the fifteen years between the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the election of Ronald Reagan, and lost us (quite rightly!) the loyalty of a demographic group conservatism has otherwise done nothing but champion from its rebirth in 1856 down to today.  One day — perhaps as progressives continue to use the courts to deprive the unborn of human rights, endeavor to nationalize everything from Boeing plant locations to lightbulbs, and usurp the institutions of religion by mandates and broad redefinitions of institutions in which the State has no prior right to interfere — we may hope to win those voters back.  Until then, we have penance to do.

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  • Jeremiah McCoy

    In a purely pedantic sense. Conservatives wish to resist change, change to existing law, the constitution, or enforced change of socio-economic factors. Liberals on the other hand, embrace change to achieve goals, changes to law, constitution, and socio-economic factors. IN this sense, the modern republican party could be seen as somewhat liberal, as they do embrace changing existing laws. They spent the last 30 yeas trying to reverse laws put in place to keep the financial sector from spinning out of control, for instance. They try to rewrite ancient rules to justify the outlawing of abortion, a practice which was legal in most societies up until relatively recently and was spoken of often by a number of early Christian and Jewish scholars as having defined rules in which it was acceptable, and what methods were preferred. They will change laws to suit what ever is politically convenient at the time. So will democrats, so don’t think I am picking just on republicans.

    The thing is, societies, laws, and customs need to change. It is part of the natural evolution of things. As societies grow in population, there is a need for new rules to govern behavior more closely. When economies grow larger, there is a need for more controls to make sure they do not become a detriment. The free wheeling man who stands on his two feet, is all well and good when everyone is expected to die by the age of 65 or younger, expected to live on a farm and live off the land, when their neighbors are a mile away and would take you a better part of half an hour just to get to their place. The economy doesn’t need so many controls when the institutions are not so large, when the trade to other nations can be accomplished in a few months or years instead of in a few seconds. Things change to match the new needs. People like Teddy Roosevelt knew this. It is a shame more conservatives do not see it.

    • BCSWowbagger

      You’re right: that is a pedantic definition of “conservatism.” By that definition, neither I nor Abraham Lincoln nor Calvin Coolidge nor the modern GOP are “conservative.” That’s perfectly fine, but wasn’t your original point that the GOP’s conservatism is a drift away from Republicanism’s supposedly liberal roots? For myself, I’ve never cared much about the label or its etymology. Two hundred years ago, our position was referred to as “liberalism” (classical liberalism in modern terminology). One hundred years ago, it was broadly referred to as “whiggery” (even after the founding of the GOP). Today our position is called “conservatism.” Our states used to be marked blue; now they’re red. We’ve been left, right, center, and fringe. Fine. I don’t care what we’re called; I care what we stand for, what we have always stood for: free markets and free peoples. Insofar as that is what we have, we aim to keep it. Insofar as it is not, we aim to secure it, even if that means changing the laws. I see no reason to be the slightest bit embarrassed about this: yes, I support the repeal of our unjust abortion laws, and to hell with whatever Maimonides thought, pro or con!

      (Your historical understanding of legal practice and Christian thought on abortion is grossly inaccurate, but I neither blame you for this, having been fed half-truths and plain old lies about it your entire life, nor see the need to correct it right now, because it is not relevant to the topic. So I turn aside and return to that topic.)

      I grant that there is a peculiar something in our minds that is cautious toward changing the law, and insistent on upholding it, that does not seem to exist in the modern progressive’s. The progressive is happy to achieve desired policy ends through court order or by short-circuiting the deliberative process of Congress or unconstitutional recess appointments or whatever else gets them to the Promised Land of policy. Conservatives tend to insist on the following the democratic process of deliberating, winning hearts and minds, building coalitions, and eventually winning consensus, votes, and constitutional amendments like those that liberated the slaves — even when waiting for consensus hobbles their agenda, as it often has early in the process of changing the nation’s mind. I am not certain why this is. After all, following the three great experiments in unhindered progressivism — the French Revolution, the Revolution of 1918, and the March on Rome — progressive policies were indeed implemented, with lightning-quick efficiency, but they didn’t last. That slow, deliberative America, though, that Great Experiment in classical liberal thought, is still here, lumbering away, refusing to job off the cliffs of risky new ideas until they’ve really been proved.

      All the same, as I said at the top, we conservatives stand for life, liberty, and property (in that order!), and we will work to change laws that infringe upon that trinity. We’ll just go about it more slowly and democratically than by, say, ramming a landmark and unpopular new entitlement through reconciliation. When Republicans in Congress did something quite similar with Medicare Part D in 2005, betraying their conservative principles, it was the beginning of the end for them. (Democrats won in 2006 because Republicans stayed home, not because Democrats came out.)

      As for the substance of your stand against conservatism — that, “As societies grow in population, there is a need for new rules to govern behavior more closely,” I have seen scant evidence of that. I just watched government policies (especially easy monetary policy, an ancient Republican bogeyman) both fuel and prolong a the deepest economic collapse since the Great Depression. And when I look back to the Great Depression, I see the same thing: government interference permitting the market to inflate to unsustainable heights, and more government interference, from tariffs to the National Recovery Act, keeping us in the longest and deepest recession in national history.

      I am not arguing that, without government interference, everything would be peaches and roses. Economies crash and always have. Investors malinvest and have been doing so since Egypt. The business cycle lives on, despite the fiercest attempts by the Keynesians to snuff it out. I just haven’t seen any evidence that government does more good by its involvement than harm. Natural recoveries from natural recessions don’t take four years.

      So I don’t really care about the labels, but I respectfully disagree with you on the economic substance you serve up.

      We can agree on this, at least, “Things change to match the new needs.” One need we have right now is greater liberty, for all Americans, and I would love to see the next president tackle it.

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