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A Brief History of American Conservatism

Updated on May 1, 2014

William F. Buckley was an intellectual figurehead of the conservative movement.

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American Conservatism Defined

Many people claim to be conservatives without truly understanding exactly what the term means. The American political discourse often percolates with such convoluted rhetoric that it becomes difficult at times to truly differentiate between various ideologies. Yet, there are some common threads that do mark American conservatism.

In general, a belief in a small, but strong, government, isolationism, low taxes and religious values often differentiate those on the right of the political spectrum from their more liberal opponents. Nevertheless, it is always important to remember that the meaning of conservatism changes to meet contemporary needs. As such, the definition is constantly in flux.

George Washington was a leader of the conservative Federalist political faction.

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George Washington

The first incarnation of conservative principles developed during the Presidential Administration of George Washington. Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, and Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State, battled over the best way to sustain the fledgling republic.

Hamilton espoused measures that became the standards for the right-of-center Federalist Party, headed by President Washington. The Treasury Secretary called for a strong central government. The President and other subsequent Federalist leaders remained committed conservatives. Meanwhile, Jefferson led the Democratic-Republican faction that was the forerunner of the modern Democratic Party.

Upon leaving office in 1796, Washington urged the nation to remain neutral in all foreign wars. This isolationist approach to foreign policy became another central tenet of traditional American conservatism. Holders of this philosophy believed that the nation should focus on its own development rather than the internecine fighting often occurring in faraway lands.

FDR and the New Deal

An international economic depression caused havoc on financial systems during the 1930s. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and his Democratic Party colleagues initiated a slew of legislation aimed at stunting the negative effects of this Great Depression. Consequently, the size and scope of the federal government expanded beyond that ever seen previously.

In addition, the concomitant Second World War required the mobilization of troops for military action against enemies in Europe and Asia. When this conflict ended, the nation found itself embroiled in the Cold War with the Communist Soviet Union. It would not be until the 1990s that the military would reduce its size. These factors helped change American conservative principles under the Reagan and two Bush Administrations.


Ronald Reagan

The election of Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980 serves as a crucial demarcation in the history of conservatism. Republicans espoused their disdain for the seemingly ever-growing federal government. They also asked for, and received, tax breaks from Congress.

Last, Reagan demonstrated a sense of ease with Christian religious leaders, resulting in a clear move of this constituency into the Republican Party. This modern conservatism differed from its traditional tenets largely in its acceptance of an active military. To Reagan, a strong military was the best defense against Soviet aggression.

Ronald Reagan is Popular Among Conservatives

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Phyllis Schlafly helped defeat the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) during the 1970s.

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Conservatism at the Turn-of-the century

Another brand of conservatism became dominant as the nation entered the 21st century. President George W. Bush and his Administration used the military to fight a war against terrorist aggression. This war took place overseas to stave off potential attacks on American soil. The Bush doctrine defined conservatism, in general, for many on both the right and left.

As has been shown here, American conservatism has some long-term qualities, yet it also attempts to meet the challenges of the present day. Therefore, before political pundits and citizens can begin real dialogues about the nature of this ideology, it is best that they have some comprehension of its historical trajectory.

William Buckley on race and conservatism.

Jerry Falwell was a religious conservative.

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