To be a conservative one must first have something that one wants to
conserve: property, wealth, customs, status, power. Thus
conservatives are those who are usually in positions or in possession
of property, wealth, power, status and simply want to keep things as
Some conservatives think that conservatism is not an ideology and is
anti ideology . They think this not because conservatism lacks the
doctrines or beliefs or values that compose an ideology, but because
they refuse to accept programs as logical deductions from a set of
general principles. In other words, they do not see that all political
problems can be solved by referring to theory and reason. This would
seem to make them at least antiliberal and maybe antiideological.
But this is not an argument we need to take up here, because
conservatism does hold the elements we have identified as making up
Sometimes one hears that conservatism is an ideology defined solely
as support for the status quo. Thus those hard line ideologues in the
Kremlin who wish to perpetuate the Cold War and return Russia to
communism are "conservatives."
But this is not Conservatism with a capital "C." Conservatism is a
political ideology beginning with Edmund Burke and stretching down
to contemporary times including Ronald Reagan on its active side and
David Brooks, George Will, and the like on its intellectual side.
It honors order, social stability, religion, tradition,
hierarchy, community, obligations, and at best gradual change. We
shall look at all of these qualities, but first let us look at the exemplar
of this ideology, the father of Conservatism, EDMUND BURKE.
Burke was not the first conservative, but he was the first to address
conservatism as an ideology, as a political philosophy. Indeed
conservatism does not enter into political speech in England its
home until the 1830s. But its philosophical substance begins with
Burke's spirited critique in 1790 of the French Revolution.
1 Conservatism is born in Burke's reaction to that revolution (See Ball &
Dagger, pp. 5961 and 102 104, as well as later in this lecture.). It is a
reaction to liberalism in action. For Burke, and conservatives after
him, selfinterest, individualism, and the very idea that society is held
together by a social contract built on competing claims and natural
rights were and still are repugnant ideas.
WHO WAS EDMUND BURKE?
He was a British statesman and philosopher, but born (1729) to a
family in Ireland, close to the poverty line. He was a good scholar,
attending Trinity College, Dublin, and then going to London to read
law. He was never called to the bar and instead started on a career in
writing and journalism.
In 1765 he was invited by the incoming Prime Minister Lord
Rockingham to become his personal secretary. Burke soon became
one of the Prime Minister's leading spokesmen and pamphleteers.
From 1770 until the American Revolution Burke acted as an agent in
Parliament for the colony of New York, during which time he tried to
convince Parliament to ease up on its attitudes and demands toward
He entered the House of Commons at the age of 37, representing the
city of Bristol. During his campaign there he gave his famous speech
arguing for REPRESENTATION (Trustees) , not DELEGATION.
Delegates are those one elects to vote only as the constituents
demand; representatives or trustees are those who use their own
judgment when they need to make a decision in Parliament. He later
"sat for"represented Malton when Bristol turned him out, probably
for following his own advice.
What distinguished him from his fellow parliamentarians was his
philosophical bent: He could look beyond the interests of the day to
offer general principles by which events should be judged.
To Burke a good government was one that assured stability and order
and that kept the peace. These stability, order, and peace were the
goals of his theory. In this regard he is much like Thomas Hobbes.
But Burke emphasized the importance of feudalism, the patriarchal
family, local community, church, school, and guild. It was social units
or institutions like these that provided stability. These organizations
Burke described as “little platoons.”
2 Burke argued against the liberal and Enlightenment stress on reason
and on the individual. He argued that we should not look to reason to
rectify social problems, but to tradition.
As a Christian Burke felt that the Enlightenment emphasis on the
perfectibility of man was an error. Instead of trying to improve the
world through reason, Burke felt that the moral order of the universe
is unchanging. The first duty of legislators is to the present, not the
future. Their attention should be on correcting present and real ills,
not trying to map out an ideal future.
In this regard Burke was especially critical of the French
Revolutionaries for destroying the inherited institutions and traditions
in the name of progress or improvement. The Jacobins the leaders
of the Revolution were attempting to erect an entirely new political
order on reason; that is, on a false rationalistic philosophy.
BURKE AND THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
Burke's ideas are found in his book Reflections on the Revolution in
France (1790). His positions here, especially his emphasis on
tradition, shocked his liberal (called “Whigs” in England) colleagues,
since Burke had always been in favor of reform. For example,
because of his experiences as the agent representing the colony of
New York, Burke supported the American Revolution.
He supported the American Revolutionaries for two reasons: 1)
because he saw that their war was a fight of the colonists to preserve
their inherited rights and privileges traditions upon which the British
government had impinged.
But weren't the French fighting for their rights, for the "rights of man"?
“NO,” said Burke. The rights that the Jacobins wanted were at the
expense of personal property, religion, and the traditional class
structure of a Christian society.
In addition, 2 ) the American colonies were fighting against an alien
power, while the Jacobins, Burke thought, were themselves Frenchmen
trying to destroy French civilization. The Jacobins were treating their
own country exactly like a country of conquest, and they used force
against their own people exactly as an invading army would. The
Jacobins were, in fact, TERRORIZING their own population, as we shall
see in Unit Five.
3 The goal of the Jacobins was not so much to free their fellows from the
oppressive rule of the King and the aristocracy as it was, thought
Burke, to remake, redefine, and manufacture a new kind of man and
citizen. They believed that through education, persuasion, force, and
terror which, argued Burke, they learned from Rousseau they could
create a new being, those living as free, equal, and communal (liberte,
egalite, fraternite ).
The Jacobins, thought Burke, were not after freedom but power. What
did the Jacobins do?
1. Their goal, as gleaned from Rousseau, was to destroy those
traditional groups guilds, monasteries, corporations and associations
of all kinds, the “little platoons” that provided people with some
social stability. Thus in 1791 the Jacobins abolished all trade guilds,
an act that, ironically, the monarchs of France had never been able to
2. Next the Jacobins attacked the family, since the Philosophes the
philosophers or architects of the Enlightenment thought that the
traditional kinship structure was "against nature and contrary to
reason." Thus in 1792 marriage was declared a civil contract, not a
sacred one, and divorce was made available.
3. The Jacobins also abolished any sort of corporate land owning. The
great estates owned by families, the Church, or any organization were
divided up, to be owned only by individuals.
4. They terminated all monastic and other religious vows, nationalized
the church, made all clergy state workers bound by an oath of
allegiance to the Revolution, and declared the new religion as based
on reason and virtue.
5. To create a new social order they recreated time and space. To the
Jacobins time began when the old monarchy ended: September 22,
1792. This became the beginning of Year 1. From now on each week
consisted of 10 days; three weeks equaled one month; and 12 months
equaled one year. Five days were left at the end of the year for
Space: 1,400 streets in Paris received new names because the
old ones had some reference to a king, queen, or saint. Notre Dame
was renamed The Temple of Reason; chess pieces were renamed (one
could not play with "kings and queens."); children named Louis were
required by law to have new names.
4 The Revolutionary "Committee on Public Safety" led by Robespierre
perfectly captured the goal of the Jacobins: "You must entirely
refashion a people whom you wish to make free, to destroy its
prejudices, alter its habits, limit its necessities, root up its
vices, purify its desires."
According to Burke, this goal of the Jacobins was not simply to remake
France but to destroy all the traditions and institutions of France and
make the country unrecognizable and possibly uncivilized. It was also
to spread the work of the Revolution to all of Europe and the world.
The revolution was, to Burke, a threat not only to the Crown and the
Church, but also to the aristocracy, to all property owners, and to the
right to private property.
Burke railed against the attempt in France to seek liberty without any
real knowledge of what it meant. The Jacobin liberty was an "object
stripped of all concrete relations," nothing but "a metaphysical idea."
Meanwhile, equality was a false idea that did great social harm by
pretending that real differences were unreal. Thus, this quest for
equality inspired "false hopes and vain expectations in those destined
to travel in the obscure walk of laborious life." Such attempts
threatened social hierarchy.
What is Burke's Alternative?
Burke saw the present (the 18th Century) as a decline from a great
history the history of feudalism when religion was unchallenged,
when chivalry was the accepted code of conduct. It was to the past,
to the Middle Ages, that Burke and other classical, or traditional,
conservatives looked for models and ideals to guide policies and
politics in the present.
The Middle Ages offered membership, ascribed status , in an ordered
society; everyone had a place, knew his place, and knew what was
expected of himhis duties and his privileges. Then men were not
conceived as individuals but as members of social groups of a social
hierarchy that distinguished one from another and gave meaning
and stability to life.
Within the hierarchy, classes and groups were arranged like organs in
the body, and this social arrangement was thus called the organic
view of society . To be healthy these groups and classes had to work
together harmoniously. Each had to know his place within his group;
each group had a place within the hierarchy. To disrupt that hierarchy
5 was to destroy society and to leave men without meaning in life. THE
HIERARCHY MUST BE CONSERVED .
One could not, as liberals wanted to do, try to reform society radically
or fundamentally. Society was organic, with interrelated parts that fit
together into a tight unit. That interactive harmony, said Burke, is
what has enabled successful societies like England to survive and
thrive. Society was not, therefore, a mechanical device, a machine to
be tinkered with or fixed by replacing parts and remaking people.
Did this emphasis on tradition and social hierarchy force conservatives
like Burke to admit that the society they wanted to preserve was a
"caste" society that is, that like the societies of the Middle Ages
persons were born into ascribed statuses that they could never
Burke himself, remember, was Irish, and thus he was not
born of the gentry or aristocratic ruling class in England. Still, he held
important positions of influence and of political power. Although it
was true that Burke, for example, could never rise to the level of the
landed aristocracy, he could still be a member of the ruling class. As
part of Burke’s “natural aristocracy ,” those with strong talents, like
Burke, could hold significant power and influence in society. But the
bulk of members of this natural aristocracy would come from the
established hereditary families. Because they had money, they had
leisure time; because they had leisure time, they could afford to
educate their children through private tutors. The well educated
were, thought conservatives, the most stable and reliable force within
So, what Burke and conservatives like him were describing was the
difference between class system and caste society . The feudal
system of ascribed status was a caste system, such as that found in
India. Caste is like a box; it has fixed boundaries that one cannot
escape. Class, on the other hand, is a form of pressure. The pressure
makes it difficult, often extremely difficult, to move up or out, but such
movement is possible. Thus, there is much more movement available
in and through class. In no way were conservatives arguing for a caste
system; that would run against Burke's insistence on a natural
Burke placed great faith in the wisdom of inherited tradition . It was
this wisdom that liberalism was undermining and ignoring. So against
the liberal emphasis on individual rights, natural rights theory, and the
social contract of both Hobbes and Locke, Burke emphasized the
rights and role of the church, of social class, of family, and of property.
6 THIS IS THE POINT: RIGHTS AND DUTIES ARE THE PRODUCT NOT OF
ABSTRACT REASONING OR OF NATURE, BUT OF SPECIFIC LEGAL AND
INSTITUTIONAL ARRANGEMENTS DERIVED FROM HISTORY AND
Burke said of rights: "Our liberties. . . are an entailed
inheritance. . . The idea of inheritance furnishes a sure
principle of conservation, and a sure principle of transmission;
without at all excluding a principle of improvement. It leaves
acquisition free; but it secures what it acquires."
Inherited rights are the only real rights; natural rights, the kind of
rights argued for by Hobbes and Locke, were to Burke repugnant
because outside of civil society men have no restraints on their
passions. Besides, put a baby in the woods and tell him to live
according to his natural rights. What will be the result? So much for
the power of natural rights.
What does Burke mean by tradition? As with all conservatives,
Burke trusted experience over abstract, deductive thought. History is
the recording, the accumulation, of the experiences of men and
societies. The traditions, customs, and institutions that have
withstood the tests of time are those to be venerated and maintained,
True history for conservatives is expressed by the persistence of
institutions, communities, habits, and customs generation after
generation. It is not about dates and persons but is a constant looking
back in time.
Reason outside of tradition was dangerous, argued Burke. Indeed,
claimed Burke, the British Constitution was legitimate not because it
was based on reason, but because it was a social construct. Its sole
authority, he said, "is that it has existed time out of mind." This
meant that it had a longstanding tradition. A constitution made by
tradition "is ten thousand times better than one of choice" or reason.
The real constitution of any society, said Burke, is not a piece of paper
but the history of its institutions. "Society," he wrote in probably his
most famous lines, "is a partnership...As the ends of such a
partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a
partnership between...those who are living, those who are dead, and
those who are yet to be born.
HOW SOCIETY LOOKS TO CONSERVATIVES
7 To Burke the state arises as the result of a process of historical growth
like that of living organisms.
BURKE’S NOTION OF PREJUDICE:
Burke, and his successors, opposed the "spirit of innovation" change
for its own sake. The strength and health of the state is composed of
its network and pattern of customs, manners, institutions, and rules
expressed and unexpressed into which citizens are socialized what
Burke calls prejudice . Prejudices built of habits and customs are
more reliable than trying to derive what one reasons are right moral
doctrines or moral rules.
Burke emphasized prejudice to offset the Enlightenment stress on
reason, on a Hobbesian strict deductive method of the kind found in
geometry. Burke opposed individual truth seeking and favored
tradition and the long experience that comes from living within an
ordered society. Ordered society, its customs and institutions, guide
us in how to live good lives, how to be just, and how to prosper.
Prejudice is not for Burke what it is for usbeliefs that are based on
ignorance, illfounded ideas, or hatred. Prejudice was a network of
traditional habits or customs giving citizens a way of behaving or
acting that is predictable and that has been passed down for
generations. This enables persons to act without needing to delve
into their reasons for doing so. It frees them from needing to analyze
every action .
These habits of mind or prejudice provide persons with a moral
compass how to act in certain situations. The “little platoons” were
the social institutions that used prejudice to educate us into and to
reinforce proper conduct.
Prejudice is a network crucial to how society functions harmoniously.
Because society is organic, it cannot be broken down into small pieces
without changing its nature. Innovation is dangerous because one
cannot predict what the effects in various areas will be of changes in
other areas. As a result, Burke thought that no general rules for
ordering society could be found since its coherence and integrity
rested on the "fit" of its customs, institutions, and practices that had
evolved over time.
Along with property, authority is a central concept in conservative
philosophy. In opposition to liberals, Burke argued that the only kind
of liberty worth having was that connected with order . The first
8 business of government is to restrain men's passions, to thwart their
inclinations and control their will.
QUERY: BUT WHY MUST THEIR PASSIONS BE
RESTRAINED AND THEIR INCLINATIONS THWARTED?
Because human nature is fixed and permanent. Part of that
permanence, said Burke, is the limited nature and scope of human
reason. Because man's reason is limited, politics and government can
only do so much to improve human lives. Thus conservatives reject
the idea of revolution or the radical overthrow and restructuring of
society. Organizing society according to some ideal of how society
ought to be is a mistake.
Human moral nature is flawed because men are born in original sin.
This is why men's passions must be restrained.