If it be considered as a natural impulse in man, to prefer the tried and handed-down to the untried and new, then conservatism is as old as mankind itself. Men most often will choose what we are comfortable with and know, food, work, where we live, whom we spend time with, all are usually influenced by what we already know or are comfortable with. If this is conservatism, it is common and as often harmful as it is good. Though when considered as a school of political thought, alongside other schools such as Liberalism and Progressivism, Conservatism is a part of the modern, and late-modern, world.
The political philosophy known as conservatism, in the Western world, appears on the horizon just prior to 1800, the start of one of the most fecund periods in history. Just as the speed of change, alteration, innovation and destruction reaches a vertiginous rate, so certain men emerge to give us pause, to reconsider the headlong rush of mankind. Conservatism appears in and between two of the pivotal events in Western history: the American Revolution and the French Revolution.
While the American Revolution and our Founding Fathers were influenced in part by the liberal tradition of Locke, and spawned a new tradition from Jefferson, both it and they are not wholly liberal. The Founders, from the beginning of their conflicts with England over such legislation as the Stamp Acts and the Intolerable Acts, asserted their rights as Englishman, and why should they not? As scions of perhaps the freest nation of its age they enjoyed a liberty under the English common law, an assumed representation in the Parliament, and protection on the high seas from the Royal Navy.
Insofar as they wanted to preserve what they had, the Founders largely retained much of what they had enjoyed as English subjects. Far from seeking to overturn the society and law they had lived under, they retained much of its substance while altering the forms of its existence. The American Constitution, laws and legislature are all closely modeled on the English constitution and Common Law. The Victorian thinker Sir Henry Maine wrote of the American Constitution, “It is in fact the English Constitution carefully adapted to a body of Englishmen who had never had much to do with an hereditary king and an aristocracy of birth, and who had determined to dispense with them altogether.”
All this is to say that the American Revolution had a far different character from the French Revolution, as was seen by contemporary observers such as Gouverneur Morris and was later written on by Friedrich von Gentz and Erik von Keuhnelt-Leddihn. The primary focus of the American Founders was to retain, with suitable alterations, the privileges and rights of Englishman, in the face of an increasing royal despotism which was opposed in England by the Whig Edmund Burke.
There are many interpretations of the American Revolution, and I have shown but a small part of a conservative interpretation, though there are variations on this and even diametrically opposed interpretations. These include the Classical Liberal, Progressive, Scottish and Common Law interpretations, all of which seek to find the roots, causes and final explanation for our Revolution in a variety of thinkers, motives and traditions.
I apologize for the incompleteness of this post, I am bit rushed as was somewhat unable to reach the level I would have liked. Let it suffice for today.
I Remain, Your Humble Servant, C. McDonald