The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 16, 2018

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

Peel was equally anxious to avoid a war in North America, and to that end he proved himself willing to make considerable concessions to the United States, as demonstrated by his practice of bypassing the usual channels of diplomacy by sending special envoys, armed with full powers to negotiate, in order to demonstrate the desire of the Government for a settlement and its willingness to pay the price necessary to do so. The case of the Oregon settlement, with its demonstration that the British were no less likely to accept an agreement than the Americans were to offer one, followed upon a similar resolution of a long-standing boundary dispute at the other extremity of the continent, between Maine and New Brunswick. Controverted since the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and plagued by inaccurate and contradictory maps of the territory in question, this issue had seemed to open the door to war when Peel had felt impelled to increase British forces in Canada, although the hope was that the deployment would bring diplomatic accommodation rather than armed conflict, if it convinced the Americans of British seriousness. In the end, the Webster-Ashburton Treaty split the difference, giving the Americans more than half of the acreage in dispute but preserving to the British the line of defensive positions that they felt necessary. Palmerston denounced the terms of the agreement, arguing that the British claim was well-founded and should not have been compromised in any degree, that Ashburton had no training as a diplomat and was of doubtful reliability in any event, since he had an American wife, and that the resulting line placed the Americans far too close to the city of Quebec for safety, but Peel strongly defended the results that his emissary had obtained, asking, “But can you ever effect any adjustment without some degree of mutual concession?” and declaiming that “a few thousands or millions of acres is nothing against the advantage of a permanent and satisfactory peace.” For Peel, most reluctant to commit the resources needed to prosecute a war against the United States over territory in either the east or the west of North America, accommodation was the policy most compatible with his brand of reforming conservatism.

François Guizot and the Conservatism of Repose

A long-term possibility for Calhoun and a worrying threat for Peel, revolution was for Guizot a horrific personal reality. His father had been guillotined in the Terror, and Guizot and his mother had spent the years of his youth in Geneva. Returning to Paris under the Empire, he had nonetheless never been an adherent of the Napoleonic regime, and he played a minor role in the first Restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814. As that government became increasingly repressive in the 1820s, however, he had lost sympathy with it as well, particularly after it deprived him of his teaching post because of doubts about his loyalty. The July monarchy that came to power in 1830 averted a more thorough-going revolution, but it lived in fear that the appetite for equality had not yet spent itself and the cycle of revolution had not ceased to turn.

The political lesson that Guizot drew from these experiences made him and his collaborators into the party of the doctrinaires. There is in this term more than a hint of Calhoun’s conservatism of resistance. What distinguished Guizot’s plight, however, was that, in order to construct that stable parliamentary majority that would support a government possessing the support of both the Chamber and the King, he found it necessary to combine every member who accepted the Charter as it stood. As Guizot saw it, Peel could lose power to the Whigs and still not lose the game, because the Whigs wanted to overthrow the constitution no more than the Tories. Calhoun differed profoundly with a Northern Whig like Webster, but he did not believe that Webster consciously intended to end the American regime. In Guizot’s eyes, because the party he assembled, to which he always referred as the “conservative” party, was defined by its adherence to the existing laws, its opponents were by definition the opponents of the existing laws, and again and again he branded them “revolutionaries.” If the political spectrum has resolved itself into two and only two camps—the conservatives who wish to preserve the regime, and the revolutionaries who wish to overturn it—then even a consistent “no” to demands for fundamental change is insufficient. The only safe course is to prevent such questions from ever arising: the conservatism of repose.

Two views existed on the best way to ground the legitimacy of the regime so solidly that neither within the narrow ranks of the electorate nor among the great majority of the population beyond would the idea arise of demanding constitutional change. One method, favored even by some who were favorable to the government of Louis Philippe, was to provide the people with grandeur. The government should appeal to the same patriotism that had supported Napoleon, and in the same way, by pursuing an active, ambitious, and glorious foreign policy. In this fashion, it would identify itself with the emotions of the populace and with the traditions of the State, monarchical, republican, and imperial. It was necessary for the government, always and on every issue, to be seen defending the honor of France, even at the cost of straining relations with other powers, even at the cost of war. The second method, the alternative consistently chosen by Guizot, was to provide the people with wellbeing. The distinguishing trait of modern society was under this conception the taste, and even the demand, for material prosperity, and a government that wished to secure popular acceptance had to concentrate its efforts on economic progress. What was needed was a foreign policy that was quiet rather than ambitious, pacific rather than martial, cooperative rather than bold. Guizot repeatedly linked and equated revolution and war. He believed that the same political forces in France that yearned for one would promote the other, and it was his determination to oppose both. The surest way to avoid revolution was to abstain from war, and the way to steer clear of war was to collaborate with the other great powers in stabilizing the international system. “All the great conquests are accomplished, all the great interests are satisfied,” he told the Chamber in 1842. “Our . . . predominant object should be to secure the steady enjoyment of what we have won. To succeed in this, we only require two things, stability in our institutions, and judicious conduct in the daily and naturally incidental affairs of the country,” including foreign affairs.

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