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The Giants of American Conservatism

July 2024
18min read

A thoughtful discussion of the men who contributed the most to what is now the dominant political pattern

The swing to conservatism in American politics and culture is one of the most remarkable facts of our age. The signs of this conservatism are all about us. After generations of exile from respectability, the word itself has been welcomed home with cheers by men who, a few short years ago, would sooner have been called arsonists than conservatives. Politicians, columnists, businessmen, and editors shout the slogans of the great revival; the campuses run over with poets and professors who yield to no one in their insistence that “what America needs is a healthy dose of true conservatism"; a President who proudly proclaims himself a conservative sits in the White House and enjoys overwhelming popular support. The tide of conservatism runs in confusing patterns, but no one will now deny that it runs deep and strong.

One of the telltale marks of our conservative mood is an intense devotion to tradition. Such devotion is not a new or unusual attitude for Americans to adopt. Despite our youth as a nation, or more probably because of it, we have always been fond of rituals, symbols, and slogans that bind us to a glorious past, and our present troubles serve only to stiffen the conviction that “the American dream” and “the American tradition” are one and the same thing.

One of the most interesting signs of an increased devotion to tradition is the way in which Americans of all kinds and political shadings are searching the past avidly for heroes who can teach, inspire, and comfort. Special groups, of course, have special heroes. For Polish-Americans there is Pulaski; for Italian-Americans, Columbus; for Negroes, Booker T. Washington; for southerners, Robert E. Lee; for baseball fans, George Herman Ruth; for small boys, the man who was born on the mountain top in Tennessee. But who is there for American conservatives, for the millions of solid Americans who, standing confidently on the ancient ways and avoiding political extremism, are setting the tone for politics and culture in America today?

They, like all Americans, cherish Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and Lincoln; but who are, or should be, their special heroes? What eminent Americans should they look to before all others for support of their common-sense, middle-of-the-road approach to the issues of our time? Who, in a word, are the giants of American conservatism? This is a question that demands an answer. In the hope of answering it satisfactorily, let us survey American history with an eye for great men who did conservative deeds, thought conservative thoughts, practiced conservative virtues, and stood for conservative principles.

The search for the giants of American conservatism begins at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. There were, to be sure, outstanding men of conservative principle in the colonial period—John Winthrop, Increase Mather, Jonathan Edwards, and Richard Bland, to name a few whose lives and works have much to teach—but their purposes and arguments are too unfamiliar to modern Americans to attract the attention of any large number of conservatives. The American Revolution is now being interpreted as an essentially conservative event, as a large-scale rebellion to preserve rather than gain liberty, but it was an event that appeals as much to progressives and radicals as to conservatives. The history of American conservatism may be said to date from the decision of a group of Revolutionary leaders—conservatives all—to end the uncertainties of the post-Revolutionary years by establishing a national government that would secure peace and order, protect the legitimate rights of property, and place political power in the hands of large-minded gentlemen like themselves. Having filled with distinction the incongruous roles of rebels against royal and ancient authority, these able conservatives now undertook to play the hardly less incongruous roles of framers of a new charter of government.

The monument to their success is the American Constitution, a triumph of conservative statesmanship. The framers of this Constitution, who distrusted democracy, deserve much credit for the success of our democracy. Lacking faith in the people, they none the less rested their new Constitution on the broad base of popular sovereignty. Placing faith in government by the gentry, they none the less raised a structure that could be converted without bloodshed into government by the people. The framers insisted in 1787, and their document insists today, that law is the price of liberty, duty of happiness, communal order of individual development, deliberation of wise decision, constitutionalism of democracy. Their Constitution, conceived in this tough-minded philosophy, has made it possible for a restless race to have its stability and its progress, too.

It has been perhaps the most successful conservative device in the history of mankind, and the Americans, a singularly conservative people for all their restlessness, have adored it with good reason. It has been their king and church, their ark and covenant, their splendid sign of freedom and unity; it has been all these things because, first of all, it has been their tutor in ordered liberty. American conservatives, for whom the Constitution has special meaning, may also take special pride in the men who framed it, in James Madison, James Wilson, Roger Sherman, John Dickinson, Gouverneur Morris, the Pinckneys of South Carolina, and the rest.

They may take even greater pride in four men—two of whom were at Philadelphia in 1787, two who were not but might just as well have been—who loom above all other men of their age as models of conservative statesmanship and wellsprings of conservative thought.

The first of these, as he is the first of Americans, is George Washington. He is, to be sure, the property of the whole nation, yet it is impossible to deny that he will always have a peculiar appeal for Americans anxious to preserve their unique way of life, just as Jefferson always will for Americans anxious to improve it. In him all the virtues of gentility, integrity, and duty met to form the archetype of the conservative statesman. In his career those great abstractions—service, loyalty, patriotism, morality—came nobly to life. And from him the nation heard, in his Farewell Address, the earnest plea of the true conservative for that firm support of ordered liberty: the unity that overrides petty dissension and selfish faction.

Alexander Hamilton presents a hard problem. That he was a “man on the Right” is beyond dispute. No prominent American was ever so unashamedly committed to government by “the wise and good and rich,” so opposed to political radicalism, so distrustful of the bright promises of democracy. Whether Hamilton was a genuine conservative, however, is a question worth disputing. If he was conservative in practical politics and in his concern for property, he was reactionary in his devotion to monarchy and hereditary aristocracy, visionary in his schemes for an industrial America, and who-knows-what—radical, reactionary, or just plain opportunistic?—in his eagerness to reduce the states to an inferior position. His basic ideas, which he voiced on the floor of the Convention, were irrelevant in the American environment and were certainly not those of a man who knew and cherished the American tradition. His working ideas, which he followed in his later career, were hardly more conservative. His reports and speeches as secretary of the treasury expressed a high-toned, mercantilist, opportunistic brand of Federalism that can only be regarded as Rightism run riot. Hamilton was a great man and, despite what Woodrow Wilson may have once said, a great American. A great conservative he certainly was not. No man could be so indifferent to the established order, full of schemes for its alteration, dazzled by plutocracy, and casual about centralized power, and still lay claim to the title of conservative.

Yet Hamilton is not so easily dismissed as all that. He was, it will be remembered, one of the two chief authors of The Federalist, and The Federalist is conservatism at its finest and most constructive. It is a book that voices in all its pages the conditional hope that men who are properly educated, informed, and restrained can govern themselves wisely and well, a book whose grim confidence in the feasibility of liberty makes it one of the three or four basic texts of American conservatism. More important still is the well-documented fact that in one area of immense concern for Americans today, the formulation of foreign policy and conduct of diplomacy, Hamilton acted consistently and wrote eloquently in the spirit of genuine conservatism. It is interesting to note that leading critics of “sentimentalism” and “idealism” in American diplomacy such as George Kennan and Hans J. Morgenthau rely heavily on Hamilton’s writings on diplomacy. Prudence, realism, discretion in speech, moderation in act, concern for the national interest—these were the principles and methods that Hamilton pressed upon President Washington in the Anglo-French crisis of 1793, and these are coming to be held in ever higher esteem as we move slowly toward maturity in our relations with the world. Hamilton, it might be said, was America’s Castlereagh, and as such he remains a figure of consequence for American conservatism.

John Adams was another breed. His roots were in the American land, his home was the New England town, his vision of the Republic was much the same as Jefferson’s. His whole approach to life was different from that of Hamilton. Virtue, loyalty, reverence, moderation, traditionalism—these qualities were made real in the person of Honest John Adams. He was, moreover, a conscious political thinker, and his beliefs—in the corruptibility of men, the persistence of inequality, the need for aristocracy, the potential tyranny of the majority, the beauties of balanced government, and the sanctity of private property—have proved at least as relevant to the American experience as those of his early and late friend Thomas Jefferson. If we add to this tough-minded political theory Adams’ Puritan sense of sin, his reverence for history and its teachings, his veneration of “the little platoons” of New England’s way of life, his intense constitutionalism and spotless patriotism, and his supreme devotion to public duty, we must grant him the first rank among American conservatives. Here was no lover of government by plutocracy, here no rootless dreamer of an America filled with factories and hard-packed cities. Here was a man who loved America as it was and had been, one whose life was a doughty testament to the trials and glories of ordered liberty. Here, in John Adams of Quincy, was the very model of an American conservative.

John Marshall of Virginia drew on both Hamilton and Adams. For the former, whose constitutional writings he must have known by heart, he carried on the great work of nationalism and centralization with Gibbons v. Ogden and McCulloch v. Maryland; for the latter, who placed him at the head of the Supreme Court, he carried on the great work of protecting property against headstrong democracy with Fletcher v. Peck and Dartmouth College v. Woodward. For both, he made the judiciary the darling instrument of conservatism when he conjured up judicial review in Marbury v. Madison. By asserting the power of the Court to ignore and thus invalidate laws judged unconstitutional, Marshall put the last and most essential stone in place in the wall of conservative constitutionalism. American lawyers, natural leaders of the conservative revival, have special reason to cherish the memory of this conservative Virginia lawyer.

The achievements of these eminent men, the Federalists, were of such huge consequence to the founding of the Republic that we may salute them not only as the first but the greatest of American conservatives. These achievements were essentially three in number: the Revolution, for which they provided much of the political, diplomatic, and military leadership; the Constitution, which they planned for at Annapolis, hammered out at Philadelphia, and pushed through enough state conventions to secure ratification; and the Administrations of Washington and Adams, which won respect for the new Republic abroad, placed the government on a firm financial footing, and set standards of morality and efficiency in the public service that have never been surpassed.

Perhaps the most striking evidence of this triumph in conservative statesmanship is the fact that after twelve years of Federalist rule another group of men, many of whom had originally been opposed to the Constitution, could take over the machinery of government with hardly a hitch or break or a call for a new Constitution. The Federalists had their full share of failures, from both their point of view and ours, but their successes outweigh them by far in the balance of history. When we consider that they, like all men and movements, were devoted primarily to their own interests, we must marvel at the services they rendered to the whole Republic. These were American conservatism’s finest years, and all Americans, conservatives and liberals alike, may be grateful that the Federalists wrought their prudent deeds.

The Federalists passed into oblivion as a party in the election of 1816. Since the opening phase of the Revolution, the inherited system of government by gentlemen chosen by a restricted electorate had been under severe assault from the disfranchised and disinherited. Now, in the first decades of the new century, the collapse of the organized Right heralded the triumph of democracy. So rapid was the advance of the new nation toward political equality that many old Jeffersonians now found themselves in the ranks of conservatism side by side with long-time enemies from the Federalist camp. The drive of the plain people and their able leaders to democratize the limited Republic of the fathers was aimed at concrete political goals: removal of property restrictions for voting and office-holding; popular election of the executive; popular election, to short terms, of the judiciary; devices, like the convention, for popular control of parties; popular election of state constitutional conventions and ratification of their results; and the “spoils system.” The counterdrive of the conservatives, the men who feared Jacksonian democracy, was aimed at fighting off these innovations just as long as possible. The mission of American conservatism had shifted from construction to obstruction, and few conservatives were entirely happy about it.


In three conventions that met to revise state constitutions—in Massachusetts (1820-21), New York (1821), and Virginia (1829-30)—the conservatives made their hardest fight to preserve the old ways. John Adams, Daniel Webster, Joseph Story, and Josiah Quincy in Massachusetts; Chancellor James Kent in New York; James Madison, James Monroe, John Marshall, and John Randolph in Virginia—all these worthies, old Federalists and old Jeffersonians together, threw themselves into the hopeless struggle against universal suffrage.

None of them, except perhaps the gloomy Chancellor, was a hidebound Tory like Fisher Ames or a plutocratic Tory like Hamilton. They were, for the most part, libertarians and constitutionalists, men who took pride in the “great subdivision of the soil” among the American people and were devoted to the cause of the yeoman republic. But they could not abandon a fundamental teaching of their fathers: that men without property lack the independence, interest, judgment and virtue to be participating citizens of a free republic. They clung tenaciously, like the good conservatives they were, to the inherited doctrine of the “stake-in-society,” which affirms that office-holding and voting should be the concern of only those who have “a common interest with, and attachment to the community.”

The conventions of the 1820’s were the last and most outspoken stand of genuine, antidemocratic conservatism as a major force in the life of the whole nation. The blunt language of the old-fashioned republicans was not to be heard again in public debate. While Kent wailed and Randolph sputtered, Story held fast on a Court “gone mad” and Marshall was gathered still unyielding to his fathers, the “practical” men of the Right, even such as Daniel Webster, were already moving toward a new political faith. There was little place for a hard-bitten, plain-spoken Federalist in a land where farms, factories, railroads, and states were sprouting all over the map, and where the new voters, all of them real or potential capitalists, were proving themselves something other than European canaille. Democracy had become, thanks to its breath-taking yet peaceful surge to victory, the national religion, and conservatism, except in the South, was in demoralized rout. The swift passage of the Right from the old Federalism of 1820, when Story talked about the rich helping the poor and the poor administering to the rich, to the new Whiggery of 1840, when birth in a log cabin was the test of political virtue, is evidence enough of the fullness and abruptness of the sweep of democracy across the American mind.

It was Webster who made perhaps the most honorable peace, at least intellectually, with the victorious democracy; it is Webster, therefore, who stands out from other conservatives of his time as the most promising candidate for election to the conservative hall of fame. His political philosophy, which he expressed most powerfully in the great speech at Plymouth, December 22, 1820, looked to a “property-owner’s democracy,” a formula for liberty that is still dear to conservative hearts. His political actions were aimed consistently at preserving the Republic inherited from the fathers: “I go for the Constitution as it is, and for the Union as it is.” For his words and deeds Webster is well remembered by thoughtful conservatives.


His character, too, is worth remembering, not because it was replete with those virtues the conservative cherishes, which it certainly was not, but because it was such an astonishing mixture of strength and weakness. While we cherish Webster the matchless orator, brilliant lawyer, and fervent patriot, we must not ignore the other Webster, the man whose hunger for cash, thirst for whiskey, and all-around appetite for the White House could never be satisfied here on earth. Webster’s life is a vivid reminder that a man may be heroic in his very faults and still be a hero. This nation would be the poorer had he not replied to Hayne.

Southern conservatism in the Nineteenth Century found its most able spokesman in John C. Calhoun. There are those who deny that Calhoun was a conservative, some insisting that he was committed more deeply than he realized to Jeffersonian democracy, others that he was “the Marx of the master class,” still others that he was little better than a fabulous reactionary. Actually, these people are saying only that he was an heir of the constitutional tradition, or that he was more realistic than most Americans about the facts of class warfare, or that he sought to prevent the agrarian South from going the way of the industrial North. None of these charges removes him unequivocally from the conservative ranks.

Calhoun was first of all a man who cherished a way of life and strove ably and sincerely to save it from ruin. More than this, he was perhaps America’s most original and imaginative political thinker, and his Disquisition on Government, in which he sought to demolish the very foundations of Jeffersonian democracy, remains an immensely useful if tricky tool of conservative rhetoric. Especially significant was his doctrine of the “concurrent majority,” the doctrine that each minority must have the power to defend itself against public policy determined by mere weight of numbers. The conservative’s concept of unity is of unity that arises out of meaningful diversity, and in proclaiming this doctrine Calhoun faced squarely, as few Americans have, the problem of protecting the many small interests against the relentless pressure of the general interest.

That his own interest was especially repugnant to the democratic tradition should not blind us to the broader significance of his intellectual achievement. The concurrent majority lives on in a dozen techniques and arrangements in our political and social systems. Southern conservatives may yet be persuaded to recognize that Calhoun rather than Jefferson is their political and intellectual hero.

From John C. Calhoun to Abraham Lincoln is a long leap, but the leap should not be impossible for those who are careful to distinguish between Calhoun’s purposes, which must now seem repellent to most Americans, and his principles, which have never seemed more relevant. Lincoln is even less the property of any one group than Washington; indeed, there was something about him, perhaps the quality of pure charity that transcends politics and political theory, that makes it almost an act of impiety to pin any sort of label upon him.

Yet the modern conservative has much to learn from the ideals that guided Lincoln. If he cannot claim Lincoln for his own, surely he need yield to no American in his devotion to this giant among all men. Through most of his life a Jeffersonian agrarian in whose mind devotion to law and order, respect for property, and veneration for the men of old were entrenched, Lincoln was transformed in the crucible of war into a statesman with deeply conservative instincts. His awareness of the tragedy and mystery of human life, his feeling for the slow pace of history, his patience in the face of abuses he could not alter, his identification of freedom with Jackson’s Union and Jefferson’s Republic—these were marks of a man who met the Burkean “standard of a statesman.” He had “a disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve.”

Conservatives may well go back to Lincoln’s words and deeds, not to seek for a phrase here or an act there that can be dragged in to prove some petty political point, but to observe a broad pattern of life and thought that was grounded on those hard but hopeful truths about man and history to which the good conservative has always sworn allegiance. If Lincoln was something more than a great conservative, this should not render him less appealing to conservatives.

The Civil War was the great divide of American conservatism. The victory of the northern armies assured the victory of northern sentiment on two issues, slavery and the nature of the Union, that had fed the fires of political thought from the beginning of the Republic. Henceforth most thinking Americans would fix their attention on another great issue. The war as conceived and fought by the Union also sealed the triumph of the Constitution as symbol of national unity and of democracy as secular religion. Henceforth they would debate this issue in one political language.

The major point of that debate, on which all other controversies turned, was the right and capacity of government to regulate business enterprise in the general interest of the community and in the specific interest of its less fortunate members, and the struggle between Right and Left, between those who opposed reform and those who favored it, was just about the whole history of politics in the Age of Enterprise. The root cause of this struggle over the future of America was industrial capitalism.

Change—rapid, massive, and unsettling—was now the dominant characteristic of the American scene. Leaders of the Right served as the chief agents of change, confident that their mines and mills could bring them power and riches without disrupting the established order. Leaders of the Left served as the chief advocates of reform, convinced that positive action by federal and state governments was needed to shore up democracy against the rising tide of material inequality and treacherous currents of panic and depression.

The Right of these freewheeling decades was a genuine Right: it was led by the rich and well-placed; it was skeptical of popular government; it was opposed to all parties, unions, leagues, or other movements that sought to invade its positions of power and profit; it was politically, socially, and culturally anti-radical. The men who feared Bryan, however, lived in a different age from the men who had feared Jefferson, and the principles of the Federalists, even those of Webster and Lincoln, no longer seemed applicable.

Since these men were committed to change in a vital area of American life, they were forced to argue that change was progress and progress a blessing. Since the one real threat to their position was the demand of reformers for government intervention, they were forced to argue against all communal activity. And since, most important, they were leading citizens of a country in which political democracy was now an established fact and holy faith, they were forced to talk, and even to think, in the language of Jefferson rather than Adams.

Progress, individualism, democracy—conservatives could never have embraced these essentially alien beliefs with convincing enthusiasm except for one decisive fact: the intellectual climate of the age was thoroughly materialistic. More and more Americans were coming to measure all things with the yardstick of economic fulfillment. This made it possible for conservatives to argue that liberal democracy and laissez-faire capitalism were really one and the same thing, which in turn made it possible for the business community to defend itself against the heirs of Jefferson with Jefferson’s own words, to celebrate the struggle against social progress as a last-ditch stand for human liberty.


Conservatives brought off this feat quite sincerely and unconsciously; no one can accuse the agents and philosophers of economic individualism of perpetrating a deliberate fraud. One can only wonder at the adroitness with which they seized upon liberalism for their own purposes and managed to convince a good part of the nation that their narrow interpretation of its meaning was unassailably correct. In any case, in proclaiming a political faith framed largely in Jeffersonian phraseology, the American Right ceased to be consciously conservative. The old conservative tradition sank deeper into lonely disrepute, while a new kind of anti-radicalism, the individualism of Herbert Spencer, moved in to take its place and provide conservatives with comfort and inspiration.


This large-scale retreat of conservatives from conservatism, surely one of the wonders of American intellectual history, makes it difficult for the modern conservative to identify his heroes in the days of Grant and McKinley. Yet if he keeps in mind the principles of Adams and Marshall and practices of Washington and Webster, he will probably decide that men like Grover Cleveland, Elihu Root, William Howard Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt were most successful in shaping the old truths of conservatism to the new facts of industrialism and democracy. John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J. P. Morgan can be ruled out on a half-dozen obvious counts, not the least of these being the easily-forgotten fact that they were in one important sense “radicals.” Their experiments in finance and technology worked astonishing changes in the American way of life, and about these changes they were astonishingly casual.

William Graham Sumner, too, is a hard man for conservatives to canonize, since no American thinker ever went to such lengths in questioning at least half the accepted principles of the conservative tradition. In the end, Root and Roosevelt seem to be the most worthy candidates for membership in the select circle —the former for his defense of old-fashioned constitutionalism against the advocates of “direct democracy"; the latter for his vigorous patrician leadership of a nation that was already showing too much fondness for vulgarity and mediocrity; both for their many acts of conservative statesmanship.

Although it is plainly too early to nominate candidates for conservative immortality out of our own generation, it would not be amiss to suggest that three men, one living and two recently dead, stand an excellent chance to be added eventually to the distinguished line that runs from Adams through Root: Robert A. Taft, the model of a modern American conservative; Charles Evans Hughes, a worthy successor to Marshall’s chair; and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was elected by the American people to give them peace at home and abroad, to hold for them the gains of the recent past but not to hurry them too fast into the future.


Adams, Hamilton, Marshall, Webster, Calhoun, Root, and Roosevelt—these are the giants of American conservatism, and no conservative need ever feel reluctant to stack them up against the giants of American progressivism, especially since he may argue with some conviction that Washington and Lincoln can also be added to his list.

In the final reckoning, it is John Adams of Massachusetts who stands forth as the greatest of American conservatives. Hamilton was too contemptuous of the sovereign people, Webster too prone to moral laxity, Calhoun too dedicated to a special interest. Marshall and Root had too little to say directly on the subject of conservatism, while the rough-riding Colonel was always too much of an overgrown boy to serve as a working model for those who believe in steady habits and prudent politics. Adams alone passes all the rigorous tests that a man must pass before he can be said to embody an entire way of life and thought.

He was somebody important, a successful President, more successful than the history books would have it. He stood for something: the old and tried American virtues. He had something to say; the political theory of American conservatism dates from his A Defence of the Constitutions. And he lived, as a real giant must live, in heroic times. Adams is one of the four or five men who qualify without question for the title of “Founding Father of the American Republic.”

Most important of all, he was a student and lover of American liberty. For all his talk about aristocracy and inequality, John Adams was John Adams and not Edmund Burke. The town meetings, free schools, small farms, and democratic churches of New England —not the monarchy, peerage, estates, and Church of old England—were the institutional foundation of his conservatism. Burke, too, was devoted to liberty, but even he had to admit that the Americans enjoyed a kind and measure of freedom unmatched in the rest of the world. We still do, or so we like to think, and that is why Adams’ life deserves fresh contemplation. It should serve to remind us that the one thing we have most reason to be conservative about, the one thing we should be most anxious to preserve, is our free, open, progressive society. In honoring Adams and the giants who followed him, conservative Americans, indeed all Americans, rededicate themselves to ordered liberty.

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