Recently conservatism has taken a hit. No, not Donald Trump, or America First, but the traditional, commonly held notions of what conservatism consists of has come under fire. One Twitter conservative—who would hate it that I call him that—ends almost every tweet with “Burn conservatism to the ground.” Most people who think they are conservatives really possess a set of values or policies that they generally align with, but often would struggle to actually define conservatism.
No. It does not mean to “hang on to what we have.” Because the world changes constantly, we would always be hanging on to something different.
Let me suggest a very simple explanation of conservatism as simply the fusion of two documents: The Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. I think this provides a far stronger basis for the intellectual foundation of conservatism than does the Constitution, which is really an “instruction manual.”
*First, conservatism is an obvious condition of humans. Jefferson said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” You don’t need a formal education to appreciate conservatism–it’s “self-evident” and obvious to everyone. It is the default position.
*Second, only conservatism establishes that all people are equal before the law. Again, Jefferson, “All men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Conservatives believe that people are equal precisely because they are all endowed with those “unalienable rights.” Note that Marxism begins with differences—classes—and that only through violence can one class, or one group of people, be eliminated. They don’t have “unalienable rights.” Only the proletariat has those rights. For conservatives, if any individual or group has presumed permanent different rights, this is an aberration and a violation of the very essence of conservatism. Affirmative Action fundamentally holds that all men are not created equal. Black Lives Matter racism maintains the exact same position.
*Third, conservatism holds that the right to life, liberty, and property all must be upheld, or none can be upheld. “That among these [rights] are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” These were not sequential or ranked. They were all co-equal. Even in 1776, Jefferson understood that the definition of a person’s body as property would become an argument. That is why to a conservative, it is not possible to separate the rights—that an attack on one is an attack on all.
*Fourth—and this is the key difference between conservatives and Libertarians—Jefferson states that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” So, government is necessary to secure the very rights that are God-given. God did not put government in place: He empowered “men” to institute government. Moreover, these government derived “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” So, this is another “self-evident truth,” that the government must derive its power from the people. Lincoln said it this way, calling it “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
All human societies must be governed. But Jefferson didn’t stop there: “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends,” that is, destructive of the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundations on such principles.” What principles, Tom? That “all men are created equal” and that they are endowed by their Creator with “certain unalienable rights.”
In other words, a conservative believes that government exists because the people created it for the purpose of securing the rights of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” and that this government that has been instituted of the people, by the people, and for the people,” and that if it becomes “destructive” of these ends, it needs to be abolished and replaced.
*Fifth, conservatives believe that the existing foundations based on these unalienable rights need to be given a chance to work, and not “changed for light or transient causes.” That is, there is a reason for the structure of government we have, and unless your cause is so overwhelming and significant in its violation of those rights you should not change what is established.
*Sixth, if or when government does become obviously despotic to the point of damaging or eliminating such rights, it is the duty of the people to overthrow or remove that government and replace it with one that does protect such rights. In other words, submission to any system that destroys those rights is itself unnatural.
*Lastly, conservatism holds that America is an exceptional nation from its creation. As Lincoln put it, “our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. There it is again. America is an exceptional nation, but not just any nation: it is one “dedicated” to a proposition. That is, America was created because it held that “all men are created equal.”
Lincoln’s genius was in saying that which, in 1776, Thomas Jefferson could not say—or at least, couldn’t prove—that the United States was an exceptional nation, or that its birth was exceptional among all nations. Lincoln had over 80 years of proof of America’s exceptionalism.
Had Jefferson said this, he would have been speaking only to the future or an aspiration. Lincoln spoke to reality. But conservatives also believe because this is an exceptional nation dedicated to a proposition that it not only has a right to exist, rather it has an elevated calling and purpose.
Lincoln claimed that the nation was undergoing a test to its very own creation and dedication (again, to the principles). He also noted that the work was “unfinished,” namely that there was no perfection because perfection in this world was unattainable. Rather, the dedication was to the task of the “unfinished work” for which the “honored dead” gave the “last full measure.” Finally, he agreed with Jefferson that the nation was “under God,” not apart from God and that if we dedicate ourselves to that reality, government “of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
So, what is conservatism? Conservatism is an ideology that believes that all people are created equal, that they have inalienable rights from God, that they are the masters of their government rather than its subjects, that all powers government has derived from them, and that without the dedication to this the principle the United States is just another nation.
But because of that dedication to the proposition that all men are created equal, America is exceptional. That does not make America invulnerable, thus conservatism demands that Americans dedicate themselves to the unfinished work that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.
Larry Schweikart is the co-author with Michael Allen of the New York Times #1 bestseller, A Patriot’s History of the United States, author of Reagan: The American President, and founder of the Wild World of History, a history website with a full high school teaching curriculum for US and World history. (www.wildworldofhistory.com).