Conservatism as we know it today developed out of the reaction to the French Revolution of 1789 and following. Among other things, the revolutionaries attempted to restart history with year I, written with a roman numeral, starting in 1792. They established a ten-day week and changed the names of the months to meteorological themes reflecting the changing seasons. They became enemies of traditional Christianity and sought to suppress it—often violently, as in the crushing of the Vendée uprising. Seeking to destroy the old and start anew according to rational principles, the revolutionaries overplayed their hand and elicited a reaction from ordinary people attached to the old ways and not persuaded by the Paris regime’s untested proposals.
The Revolution failed in many respects. The new calendar was abolished in 1806 and, after Napoleon’s first defeat in 1814, a Bourbon monarch, Louis XVIII, was installed on the throne. But one of the effects of the Revolution was to propagate any number of ideological visions rooted in a larger secular worldview exalting the place of human reason over ancient traditions and prejudices. In this respect, the Revolution succeeded.
Because of its successes, a movement arose that repudiated the Revolution and the ideologies it generated. This came to be called conservative, and it became one of the principal movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. Or did it? Conservatism might better be described as a collection of movements wedded to specific times and places. In Great Britain, the Irish-born statesman Edmund Burke is generally said to have originated a distinctive type of conservatism in the English-speaking world.
In 1790, Burke wrote his Reflections on the Revolution in France, a work that has become part of the canon of conservative literature. In its pages, Burke articulated no political principles as such. He made no proposals to improve political life. Instead, he warned his readers, many of whom were sympathetic to the Revolution, that it would likely lead to tyranny, which is exactly what happened. Rather than the airy ideals of the revolutionaries, Burke professed fidelity to the existing British constitution, which had developed incrementally over the centuries, assimilating genuine reforms while retaining the best of the old. Because Britain, unlike continental Europe, had been unaffected by the Revolution, Burke could easily champion the status quo as the bearer of genuine good, if not of perfection.
By contrast, European conservatives had to take a different tack. Throughout the old continent, the revolutionaries had swept away the former constitutions, installing in their places revolutionary republics. Here a conservative could not defend the status quo, which was a revolutionary status quo. Thus European conservatives adopted a more reactionary stance, seeking to restore what had been lost in the last decade of the 18th century. Bring back the old kings! Restore the alliance between throne and altar! Set up a Holy Alliance among the great monarchies to maintain the restored order!
Unfortunately, this brand of conservatism engaged in misplaced nostalgia for an ideal projected onto the past. The great powers brought back the Netherlands, but as a centralized monarchy rather than the pre-1795 decentralized Dutch republic. Similarly, the supposed throne and altar alliance had never really existed before the Revolution. Clashes between kings and clerics had been a perennial feature of western history into the 18th century.
Contemporary conservatives are heir to at least these two brands of conservatism. Despite attempts to define a “true conservatism,” the phenomenon is so slippery as to elude such efforts. While liberals and socialists boast guiding principles in their efforts to govern and improve their societies, conservatives lack something comparable. What unites conservatives is less a substantive set of principles than an attachment to tradition. Which tradition? Well, their own, whatever that might happen to be.
Obviously, every society has its traditions which it passes down to future generations through various means. Although we have experienced revolutions in technology and social mores over the centuries, we still for the most part live within a civilization shaped in countless ways by our forebears. We expect that people will live up to shared social norms when, say, eating in a restaurant, attending a concert, or meeting a new person. Churches, workplace communities, amateur football clubs, theatre troupes, and so forth all have standards to which members must conform. These are informed by traditions inherited from the past.
But what happens when our traditions conflict with each other? What if a tradition of racial segregation conflicts with a tradition of equality under the law? This is what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King had to work out during the 1950s and 60s, as he and his followers struggled to secure rights of citizenship for African Americans. King could appeal to the US Constitution and to the Christian tradition. White southerners appealed to their own centuries-old practice of keeping African Americans as a subordinate class. During this era, American conservatives were divided over the rightness of Dr. King’s movement. Why? Because they lacked norms enabling them to assess the goodness of their respective traditions.
One of the paradigmatic conservative figures of 20th-century Britain was Sir Winston Churchill. But Churchill switched to the Liberal Party in 1904 because of their pro-free-trade stance, leaving them twenty years later when they failed to oppose Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Party as decisively as he wished. Churchill rejoined the Conservatives when Stanley Baldwin appointed him Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1924. That a professed conservative could move so easily between parties demonstrates that conservatism, as a mere attachment to tradition, offers little in the way of a principled alternative to the ideological visions on offer today.
Conservatives excel in issuing warnings and dragging their feet in the face of ill-considered proposals for reform. As such, they will always be needed. But if we’re looking for enduring principles of public justice serviceable to our complex societies, we shall have to look elsewhere.