The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 15, 2018

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The Diplomacy of Conservatism and the Conservatism of Diplomacy
David Clinton - 10/15/08

So likewise with the Oregon Territory. Oregon had long been subject to joint treaty-based Anglo-American occupancy, due to the inability of the two countries to adjust their conflicting claims there, but in 1844 James K. Polk had won election to the presidency on the cry of “Fifty-four forty or fight,” referring to the latitude and longitude that would give the whole of Oregon to the United States. Seeing their chance to obtain their long-held goal, Western forces in Congress introduced a joint resolution authorizing the President to give the formal year’s notice through which, under the terms of the treaty, either side could abrogate it. So long as no arrangement existed for replacing joint occupancy with an agreed settlement, abandoning the treaty was looked on as tantamount to giving notice of war within a year—until Calhoun and his allies succeeded in attaching to the resolution an amendment declaring that the purpose of giving notice was “that the attention of the Governments of both countries may be the more earnestly and immediately directed to renewed efforts for the amicable settlement of all their differences and disputes in respect to said territory.” Aided by some conciliatory language emanating from the executive branch, the amendment transformed a near-declaration of war into an invitation to reopen negotiations. The British government seized the opportunity with both hands and in the spring of 1846 sent over a draft settlement. Polk was unenthusiastic, but had promised to seek the advice of the Senate, and there, with the full support of Calhoun, a vote advising the President to accept the terms was passed by more than the two-thirds margin that would be necessary to ratify them in the form of a treaty. By summer, the treaty was in place, and Calhoun had helped to avoid a war that, he was certain, would have necessitated actions that would only unsettle the domestic American political scene on questions of the gravest social import.

This theme of restraint is the major motif in Calhoun’s pronouncements on foreign affairs over the years—in his denunciation of the steps by the Jackson administration that seemed to threaten war with France over unpaid financial claims against the French government dating from the Napoleonic Wars, in his discouragement of intervention in the Yucatan in 1848, when reports seemed to indicate that the white population there was being wiped out in an indigenous insurrection, in his opposition to as seemingly innocuous a step as a Senate resolution congratulating the people of France on the revolution of 1848, out of a concern that such an expression of opinion might bring the United States into collision with other outside parties that took an opposing view. In all these instances and others, his fear was “the strong tendency [ . . . ] to resort to menace and force in the settlement of our differences with other powers”; his preferred alternative was “quiet looking on and as little interference as possible.” Ambitious schemes were unlikely to make international conditions better and were highly likely to make domestic conditions worse. Diplomacy was the less disruptive alternative. One is struck by the constant, steady influence on him of a conservative determination to resist any further degeneration in the American constitutional regime, as he saw it, by employing negotiations to avoid international crises that would necessitate steps weakening limited government.

Peel and the Conservatism of Reform

Sir Robert Peel was born in 1788, only a year before the beginning of the French Revolution, and the fear that revolution would cross the Channel dominated his political life. “Behind him the fires of 1789 still burned on the horizon,” Peel’s grandson wrote of him; “before him, seen as in a glass darkly, was 1848.” Where Peel differed from the mass of the Tory party was the proper response to this threat. In America, Calhoun counseled staunch resistance at every point; in Britain, so did most Tories, believing that to make concessions was only to strengthen the influence and the appetite of demagogic democracy. Peel by contrast favored moderate reforms, in the belief that satisfying legitimate grievances, remedying real “abuses,” would satiate the appetite for change and avoid leveling measures that would go too far.

What Peel endeavored to preserve were the ancient institutions of the settlement of 1688—the monarchy as something more than a ceremonial component of the constitution, the predominant role of the aristocracy in leading the country, the established Church of England, the restriction of electoral power to those with the property, education, and training to employ it wisely, and the deferential attitude in the lower classes that made the survival of these elements of the eighteenth-century constitution possible. So long as this fundamental framework survived, much else might have to be sacrificed. This task of moderation by appeasement required more, however, than the abandonment of certain institutions; it necessitated as well the positive work of reforming and updating others.

What really concerned Peel was creating the modern state through a series of concessions to specific changed circumstances, each of which required its own particular adjustment. He set up a professional police force, freeing the government from reliance either on untrained yeomen or on the Army to maintain day-to-day law and order. He established something like a central bank, a fundamental tool for attempting to manage the economy. He laid the foundation for a permanent, non-partisan civil service by combating the awarding of posts to political friends in Ireland and elsewhere. He rationalized the legal system, standardizing penalties for different crimes and aligning them with contemporary notions of proportionate punishment. He gave the state the reliable means of paying for these instrumentalities of power by instituting the income tax as a peacetime measure. And he believed that all these measures of modernization were compatible with—were indeed essential to—the continued influence and honored position of Throne and Altar, the aristocracy and the landed interest generally. His reforms were pragmatic rather than programmatic; they were adjustments responding to what he saw as irresistible pressures, not an overall plan for the remaking of society, though they had the effect of changing much in British life; they were examples of reform tempered with conservatism, and conservatism made possible through reform.

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