Late Edition - Final
By Sean Wilentz.
Sean Wilentz is a professor of American history at
Ever since Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, the strength of American conservatism has largely confounded historians and intellectuals. Before then, a generation of influential scholars claimed that liberalism was the core of all American political thinking and suggested that it always would be. Well into the 1970's, many observers wondered whether a Republican Party that allied itself with the conservative movement could long survive.
History has, to say the least, disproved these judgments. Yet many prominent liberals continue to see contemporary conservatism as a rhetorical smoke screen intended to deceive the masses -- even as conservatives often trace their movement back no farther than William F. Buckley Jr.'s founding of National Review in 1955, fusing religious and pro-business-minded voters. Such thinking, however, slights the coherence and durability of conservative politics in
The Whigs arose in 1834 to oppose Andrew Jackson's anti-elitist Democratic Party. Furious at
The Opportunity Society and the Attack on Big Government: Modern conservatism rests on the proposition that Democrats and liberals thrive on a huge, wasteful federal bureaucracy that discourages individual initiative and lavishes public money on the liberals' shiftless political base. In his first Inaugural Address, Reagan denounced ''government by an elite group,'' by which he unmistakably meant parasitic liberal Democrats.
In the 1830's and 40's, Whigs said much the same about the Jacksonians. They charged that President Jackson had established an executive tyranny, while
A century and a half before Reagan's election, the Whigs worked out the basic ideas of supply-side, trickle-down economics. They acclaimed the romance of risk and private investment and a compelling but simplistic view of
Of course, there are significant differences between the Whigs and today's conservatives. Governing in an age before giant private corporations, the Whigs saw federal spending on the nation's infrastructure as imperative to economic development. On this point, modern G.O.P. dogma departs from Whig principles -- a difference that has recently caused the Bush administration severe embarrassment.
Conservative Populism: Modern conservatives present themselves as the party of the oppressed taxpayer and small businessman -- citizens Reagan lionized as ''hard-working Americans.'' Similarly, leading Whig operatives, like the
Whig rhetoric departed fundamentally from the aristocratic hauteur and gloominess that old-line conservatives inherited from the defunct Federalist Party. On the political stump, the example of the buckskinned Whig congressman and
Today's Republicans have repeated the makeover. In the 1970's, the conservative movement's adoption of the sunny-tempered
Moralism, Self-Reform and the Culture War: Today's Republican Party owes a great deal to its political alliance with resurgent conservative evangelical Christians, part of a wider conservative attack on liberals as the enemies of traditional morality. That attack reinforces the fundamental idea of the ''opportunity society'': personal failure stems not from economic and social inequalities but from the moral failings of thriftless, heedless, lawless, libertine and lazy individuals -- precisely the sorts of people (conservatives charge) liberals want to coddle with needless, destructive social spending.
The Whigs portrayed the Jacksonians in very similar terms. ''Wherever you find a bitter, blasphemous Atheist and an enemy of Marriage, Morality, and Social Order,'' The New-York Daily Tribune under
The Whigs were drawn disproportionately from devotees of the enormous wave of evangelical revivalism known as the Second Great Awakening. Evangelicalism quickly led a minority of Northern Whigs into the crusade against slavery. But mainstream Whigs despised anti-slavery politics and were preoccupied by evangelically inspired efforts to enforce public morality with coercive temperance and Sunday blue-law campaigns. Democrats opposed these efforts, upholding the separation of church and state in order to prevent Congress, one Kentucky Jacksonian wrote, from becoming the ''proper tribunal to determine what are the laws of God.''
Fate was unkind to the Whig Party. Its first president, Harrison, took sick on his frigid Inauguration Day in 1841, died one month later and was succeeded by a
The party's sorry demise helps explain why today's Republican conservatives who study history resist any comparison to the Whigs. If they look back before the McKinley era to the 1830's, as Karl Rove has done on occasion, they prefer to liken themselves to the Jacksonians, sticking up for ''the little guy'' against the federal government. But the Jacksonians, unlike conservatives then and now, also battled against the country's financial and mercantile elites and sought to reduce the power of what
By lashing Whig principles to Southern states rights dogma, and updating them both, modern conservatives have created a new mutation far more tenacious than the old Whig Party. Invigorating the core Whig tenets about trickle-down opportunity, the Republicans have enriched a plutocracy of Americans unimaginable in the early 19th century and won their financial support as well as their political allegiance. By relying on the Southern version of evangelicalism, stressing personal holiness more than the do-good reformism of Northern evangelical Whigs and enlisting the Christian right in their culture war, they have built a larger and more loyal political base than the Whigs ever enjoyed.
Of course, today's conservatives shouldn't be complacent about the future of their movement. Bad luck aside, sectional tensions between Northern anti-slavery Whigs and Southern Whig slaveholders finally proved the party's undoing. And even at their high tide, the Whigs had to paper over conflicts between the party's hard-drinking populists and its teetotaling moralists, its moss-backed bluenoses and its more flexible officeholders and party managers. Thurlow Weed's closest political friend, the
And yet modern conservatism has outlived every expectation of its demise. Even today, unsettled by hurricanes, scandals and an increasingly unpopular war, the G.O.P. nonetheless stands for conservative principles and speaks a political language readily understood by voters. Those principles and that language are venerable and, as proclaimed by today's Republicans, more compelling than the confused and uncertain message coming from their opponents. As inadequate, or worse, as the G.O.P.'s privatizing policies may appear, the conservatives' often misunderstood connection to the American past may yet carry them successfully into the future.