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Rebuttal to Book Review: Forgotten Conservatives in American History

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Thomas JeffersonOn the American Conservative website, Stephen M. Klugewicz favorably reviewed the book, Forgotten Conservatives in American History by Brion McClanahan and Clyde Wilson. The main thesis of the book, to which Klugewicz approves, is that many forgotten great American conservatives have been ignored by history professors, etc, who have chosen a liberal – or progressive – definition of history that excludes those who these three consider great conservatives.

I have a hard time accepting many of the people noted in the review are real conservatives, in the Burkean sense. My take on Burke, whose ideas I only know from cursory reading, is that he would have been appalled by the South choosing secession, or war, as several of the author’s – and the reviewer – choices advocated. In addition, the authors’ bent towards Southern Civil War arguments on State’s Rights reveals a thorough misunderstanding the volatile and varied arguments that occurred throughout the 13 states during the development of the Constitution.

MIT’s Pauline Maier’s Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 provides an excellent description, taken from newspaper accounts, personal diaries, and legislative records of the time, of the often hyperbolic arguments that occurred throughout the states. One of the biggest arguments was, indeed, over states’ rights. But unlike what we now hear of states’ rights vs federal government, it was whether states’ rights (e.g. state governments) took precedence over “the people.”

Several delegates to the convention, mainly from southern slave holding states, argued that states’ rights should be primary while the rights of the people were secondary. Obviously, that argument was lost to anyone seriously reading the Constitution, but the compromise the delegates chose was to limit federal powers to such things as affected all citizens and to not end slavery.

It should be noted, too, that Madison, Randolph, and Mason – all of Southern states – first wrote letters to each other and then to Jefferson and finally to Washington advocating the idea of a Constitutional Convention, rather than attending the upcoming, though lowly attended, Confederation Congress and putting their ideas before that Congress.

It was these men who saw first saw the states’ rights issue as unworkable for a strong, economically healthy, growing nation. Individual state coinage valuations, individual state debts, and disparate taxation had failed in their opinions. The new nation, they argued, needed a strong central government with one currency for trade stability and one main taxation method to stabilize the crushing states’ debt and one strong central government to bring all the states together into one cohesive whole.

So, in a larger sense, the notion of states’ rights as envisioned by many pre-Civil War separatists as well as by some now completely misreads history and the arguments that caught up the entire 13 colonies, from editorial writers to barkeeps to farmers and everyone in between, prior to the passage of the Constitution.

I’m not a conservative in the current definition of that term. I probably would be considered more Burkean with a bit of Adam Smith and more than a bit of TR domestic economic progressivism. Of course, many of my beliefs and leanings comes from having studied European history, especially social history, from the Dark Ages forward. As well as having lived a fairly long and well traveled life within the U.S.

Thus, many of those greats whom the authors applaud I find more than a bit elitist and regressive. HL Mencken, for example, positively hated average workers while glorifying what he considered to be his class: the educated, well heeled aristocrats of society. His works and comments fairly drips of disdain for average workers. As for Cleveland, while he ran a clean administration (something almost new during that age of political corruption,) his fiscal policies probably led to the rise of the riots and silver policy arguments sparked in the West mainly by farmers who were being destroyed by the railroads.

So, what I see in this book review is an argument for conservatism based on protecting the economic elite regardless of every other citizen’s economic outlook as well as a general misunderstanding of the founding of the Constitution.

I understand the desire for movement conservatives to rewrite history that favors their side of the political and ideological aisle as well as their desire to cast about for conservative American heroes, I find many of their heroes to be less than heroes and the arguments in favor of those heroes lacking in general scholarship as well understanding of a nation moving forwards towards “a more perfect union.”

No union can be perfect if nearly half the nation, either in the past or the future, is left out of, ignored by, or excluded from the decision making process. History is the process of progressive change towards more equality of opportunity and decision making. Conservatives fail history’s lessons if they seek to promote a brand of conservatism that glorifies economic elitism over opportunities for the many.

The truly great accomplishments of TR’s progressivism and FDR’s populism and Ike’s understanding of the common man was that average Americans, without power and money, were able to break out of their family history, create new businesses and industries, and rise to wealth.

Thus, the modern conservative movement’s attempt to rewrite history in order to gain its own movement heroes seems a futile effort at best and a fallacy at worst. Nothing will stop history from moving towards a more equitable and open future.


Written by Valerie Curl

January 16, 2013 at 9:32 AM

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