The Conservatism of the Old and Tried

by Derrick G. Jeter

“What are some books you’d recommend to help me understand the conservative philosophy?” This question came up the other day while listening to a radio program, which I found ironic because at the time I had been mulling over some ideas for a piece on conservatism. Actually, I had been thinking about writing a review of Mark Levin’s book, Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto, a book I’d recommend in answer to the caller’s question.

Before I get to the book, however, I want to point out what conservatism is in the first place. There is much confusion about what is and what isn’t conservative. For example, a lot of terms get throw around which usually muddy the waters instead of clarifying them—Neo-conservatives (sometimes called “neo-cons”; who favor a strong national defense), State’s rights advocates, Originalists or Constitutionalists (who argue for a return to the original intent of the framers of the Constitution), and Libertarians (who emphasis individual rights). These terms capture some of the particulars of conservatism, but they fail to get to the heart. Abraham Lincoln, with his penetrating mind, though, had a way of always cutting to the heart of an issue when he said during his Cooper Union speech:

You say you are conservative—eminently conservative—while we are revolutionary, destructive, or something of the sort. What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried? We stick to, contend for, the identical old policy on the point in controversy [slavery] which was adopted by “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live;” while you with one accord reject, and scout, and spit upon that old policy, and insist upon substituting something new.1

“Adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried.” That is the essence of conservatism. As applied in the American political tradition, it is, as Lincoln stated, sticking to and contending for the policies adopted by the Founding Fathers, the ones who “‘framed the Government under which we live.’” Mark Levin would agree. He wrote, “To put it succinctly: Conservatism is a way of understanding life, society, and governance,” as is liberalism, but conservatism sees the world through the prism of the Founders who “were heavily influenced by certain philosophers, among them Adam Smith (spontaneous order), Charles Montesquieu (separation of powers), and especially John Locke (natural rights); they were also influenced by their faiths, personal experiences, and knowledge of history (including the rise and fall of the Roman Empire). . . . The Conservative, like the Founders, is informed by all these great thinkers—and more.”2 More verbose than Lincoln, but there it is nonetheless: adherence to the tried and true as laid down by the Founders.

Based on this notion of conservatism, Levin analyzes ten factors of American political life—liberty and tyranny, prudence and progress, faith and the founding, the Constitution, Federalism, the free market, the welfare state, the environment, immigration, and self-preservation—and concludes that citizens living in present day America are living under a “soft tyranny” administered by, what Levin terms, “Statists.” He explains:

The Modern Liberal believes in the supremacy of the state, thereby rejecting the principles of the Declaration [of Independence] and the order of the civil society, in whole or part. For the Modern Liberal, the individual’s imperfection and personal pursuits impede the objective of a utopian state. In this, Modern Liberalism promotes what French historian Alexis de Tocqueville described as a soft tyranny, which becomes increasingly more oppressive, potentially leading to a hard tyranny (some form of totalitarianism). As the word “liberal” is, in its classical meaning, the opposite of authoritarian, it is more accurate, therefore, to characterize the Modern Liberal as a Statist.3

Much of the book has a politically wonkish tone, focusing on particular and current legislative initiatives and political personalities, making the book contemporary but hardly enduring. Fortunately, there are enough quotations and arguments from old dead white guys (the Founders, Edmund Burke, and others) to give the book some extended shelf life beyond the Obama administration and the kabuki theater that is the present Congress. Perhaps the best chapter is the manifesto itself, in which Levin lays out specific actions conservatives should take to reclaim the country and return it to its foundational roots.

It was these very roots that two of the greatest conservatives sought to keep nourished within the soil of America, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. Listen to them in their own words.

The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others, the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same thing—liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names—liberty and tyranny.

–Abraham Lincoln4

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.

–Ronald Reagan5

Let’s pray and work for a better America, one in which we won’t have tell our grandchildren what it was like to live in a free country—one in which liberty trumps tyranny, conservatism triumphs over utopian Statism, and the success of the old Declaration and Constitution thrives over the failed policies of new Socialism. There is much to be done, and we’d had better getting busy doing it.

1. Abraham Lincoln, “Address at Cooper Institute, New York City,” February 27, 1860, in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 3, ed. Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 537.

2. Mark R. Levin, Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto (New York: Threshold Editions, 2009), 2.

3. Levin, Liberty and Tyranny, 4.

4. Abraham Lincoln, “Address at a Sanitary Fair, Baltimore, Maryland” April 18, 1864, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 7, 301–2.

5. Ronald Reagan, “Encroaching Control (The Peril of Ever Expanding Government),” quoted in Levin, Liberty and Tyranny, 205.

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