This lively book traces the development of American conservatism from Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Daniel Webster, through Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Herbert Hoover, to William F. Buckley, Jr., Ronald Reagan, and William Kristol. Conservatism has assumed a variety of forms, historian Patrick Allitt argues, because it has been chiefly reactive, responding to perceived threats and challenges at different moments in the nation’s history.
While few Americans described themselves as conservatives before the 1930s, certain groups, beginning with the Federalists in the 1790s, can reasonably be thought of in that way. The book discusses changing ideas about what ought to be conserved, and why. Conservatives sometimes favored but at other times opposed a strong central government, sometimes criticized free-market capitalism but at other times supported it. Some denigrated democracy while others championed it. Core elements, however, have connected thinkers in a specifically American conservative tradition, in particular a skepticism about human equality and fears for the survival of civilization. Allitt brings the story of that tradition to the end of the twentieth century, examining how conservatives rose to dominance during the Cold War. Throughout the book he offers original insights into the connections between the development of conservatism and the larger history of the nation.
Author and professor Allit (I'm the Teacher, You're the Student, Religion in Americ Since 1945)probes the origins of American conservatism from a time when "conservative" was a descriptor, not a movement. Taking an even-handed approach, Allitt acknowledges the conservative tendency toward self-interest (pessimism and complacency being "characteristic vices"), but finds that, at its best, the conservative message illuminates "hidden or neglected insights about the human existence" (i.e, the realities of inequality and free-market justice). From present-day questions of taxation and big government, Allitt traces conservative principles to the earliest days of the republic. (The history of their specious abandonment is almost as old; Thomas Jefferson railed against Hamilton's big-government "loose construction of the Constitution," before coming to power and using the same principle to justify the Louisiana Purchase.) Allitt charts the schism between Northern and Southern conservatives before, during and after the Civil War, bringing to light those forgotten abolitionists who also supported secession. Allitt also investigates the isolationists who, after WWII, became the leading cold warriors, and other latter-20th century issues like Civil Rights, desegregation and affirmative action. Cutting across the stereotypes of present-day conservatism, this nuanced, thoughtful history should educate the unaffiliated and help the disillusioned recover.
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