The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 19, 2018

Conservatism in America
Mark C. Henrie - 09/11/12

Penned by a distinguished professor of political science at Cornell University, Clinton Rossiter, Conservatism in America (1955), subtitled in its 1962 edition “The Thankless Persuasion,” reflected the attempt by academic elites in the early 1950s to understand the emerging conservative movement in America. Rossiter was sympathetic with some elements of the conservative critique of the period, but maintained that his goal was “to sober and strengthen the American liberal tradition, not to destroy it.”

In Conservatism in America, Rossiter argued that, at least in America, conservatism was a matter of subrational “temperament” rather than a set of political principles. In fact, he wrote, “the reasonable man finds conservatism hard to embrace because he is asked to distrust reason.” He saw only a slight difference between a “conservative liberal” and a “liberal conservative,” and argued that liberalism and conservatism were essentially and properly united within a Whig view of history. Quoting Macaulay favorably, he argued that the conservatives’ role was to defend the “progress” made by the previous generation of liberals. In America, liberals would seek to “enlarge” liberties and conservatives to “preserve” them, but the direction of American history toward more liberty—or more liberalism—was clear and inexorable. In Rossiter’s view, the conservatives’ foremost duty was “to bring stability to the national community.”

This role Rossiter was willing to concede to American conservatives; but he would concede little more. Following Louis Hartz, he claimed that “the American tradition” is “liberalism.” To Rossiter this meant that only a temperamental conservatism in substantial agreement with liberal principles could prosper in America. He recognized that in his time there were some Americans committed to drawing links between genuinely non-liberal European and American conservatism, but he was highly critical of these traditionalists and dismissed Burke as “irrelevant” in America.

On this subject, the patronizing tone of a fundamentally liberal Ivy League professor intrudes into Rossiter’s work. For example, he subtitled his chapter on traditionalist “ultra-conservatives” such as Russell Kirk, “With Edmund Burke in Darkest America.” In this chapter, he argued that “to accept [the European conservative] tradition unreservedly is to reject the liberal tradition flatly, and thus to move outside the mainstream of American life”—and consequently to become irrelevant or, worse, destabilizing to the regime. Rather than studying European conservative thought, he recommended that the “prudent” Federalists be treated as “a kind of collective Burke” by American conservatives.

The three pieces of advice that Rossiter offered in his conclusion reinforced his fundamental allegiance to the liberal tradition. First, he argued that American conservatism must throw off “pseudo-conservatives,” which for Rossiter meant tempering both the John Birch Society and “ultra-conservatives” such as Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley Jr. Second, he argued that the “natural” conservative class in America was the business class, and so he recommended that American conservatism repudiate the anti-capitalist critique that has been a persistent feature of the traditionalist European Right. Finally and most succinctly, Rossiter argued that conservatism in America must “maintain [its] historic links with liberalism.”

Rossiter’s book contained many perspicacious observations about American political development; it was thoroughly researched and included an extensive bibliography; it sought to make conservatism respectable for liberal academics by defining it as a temperamental attitude toward change. But at a practical level, the usefulness of a perspective that finds Adlai Stevenson to be a truer American conservative than Barry Goldwater is questionable. While men of the Right were pleased with the attention generated by Conservatism in America, Rossiter’s attempt to yoke liberalism and conservatism in a dialectically progressive Whig “center” led some to consider his book a Trojan horse within the American conservative movement.

Further Reading
  • Hartz, Louis. The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought since the Revolution. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.
  • Rossiter, Clinton. The Political Thought of the American Revolution. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1963.
  • ———. The American Presidency. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1960.
  • ———. Seedtime of the Republic. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1953.
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