Intellectual Orgins of the Right

By: Craig Chamberlain

We, as American citizens, are going to make a big decision this November. Do we elect a progressive or a conservative? These are not meaningless distinctions, there are real ideas behind them. The Progressives, as we know, got their ideas from the early Progressive thinkers like Croly, and Dewey, and they got their ideas from Hegel, Marx, Rousseau, and Nietzsche. Conservatives, by contrast, are inspired by the American founding fathers. Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, etc. are who conservatives look to to justify theories of government and policy. But who inspired the founding fathers? They didn’t live in a vacuum, they were influenced by the world around them(I know, I’m really getting into earth shattering revelation here, but just keep up with me) and they fought and argued amongst themselves as much as we do today. The roots of conservatism lay in the philosophers who influenced the founders of our great republic. There are many such thinkers, but will limit this to only the four most influential or I’ll be writing until I die of old age.

The father of modern conservatism(at least in the Anglo American tradition) is Edmund Burke(1729?- 1797) Burke, an Irish member of the British Parliament, was actually not a Tory. He was a member of the Whig party. An adherent to the philosophy of classical liberalism, Burke favored independence for the American colonies. He saw the patriots as Englishmen fighting for rights guaranteed by English common law, but being denied to them by the crown. By contrast the French revolution disgusted him. He saw, rightly, that the French revolution was a totalitarian movement that could only destroy French society and result in mass death and loss of freedom. He, unlike Jefferson, was spot on. The French Revolution culminated in the reign of terror in which hundreds of thousands lost their lives, and ultimately in the ascension of Napoleon to power.

Burke was one of the main forces behind the natural law theory as opposed to the social contract theory of Rousseau. Natural law holds that people have inalienable rights derived from God, and the most important part of society is not the government but the cultural institutions, such as family and church, that builds and molds the morals of a society. Burke recognized, as have the left, that if these institutions ever fall so does society. Burke has been a major influence on traditional conservatives in America, who believe, as he did, that the moral underpinnings of society are found outside the state and must be protected for society to function.

Another major influence on the founding fathers was John Locke(1632-1704). Locke was hugely influential on the founding fathers, especially Jefferson. In fact the Declaration of Independence is, in places, copied word for word from Locke. Locke was the father of Classical Liberalism. A philosophy that states that people are essentially good, and capable of governing themselves. As such they need little interference from the state beyond enforcing the most basic laws to protect property and society. Locke believed that private property was the bedrock of a free society. If a person couldn’t be free in his property, he reasoned, then he can’t reasonably be free in anything else. A government that can strip you of your property can take anything else away, and if you don’t own your own property then you are at the mercy of whoever does own it.

Locke, a Deist, was one of the first to advocate freedom of religion. He called this the marketplace of religion. People are smart enough to pick their own religion without interference from the state, and should be secure from the state or anyone else to practice their religion as they see fit. The first amendment is a very Lockean principle. To put it simply Locke believed in Liberty and Law. Something that is terribly out of fashion in this day and age.

This philosophy finds a ready disciple in Adam Smith (1723-1790). Smith is rightly seen as the father of Capitalism. His book the Wealth of Nations argued that the current system of mercantilism was inefficient and didn’t create wealth the way capitalism could. There are three main tenets to capitalism the division of labor, supply and demand, and , the invisible hand. Smith argued that interest was the key motivation for economic decisions. This self interest didn’t create mass selfishness as some would think, but cooperation, as interests would overlap. If you want to make money you start a business, if I want a job I come to you for one. So it is in the interests of both for the business to thrive.

The division of labor made work more efficient and increased profits. Rather than have workers be jacks of all trades it was better to have workers highly skilled in one field. Supply and demand, determined by the market would determine prices, while the invisible hand of the market would determine which businesses succeeded and which ones failed. The state was to play only a minimalist role, letting the markets do their things, and only interfering if someone breaks the law.Smith is an influence on libertarianism with his emphasis on economics.

The last philosopher that will be discussed is Montesquieu(1689-1755). Montesquieu was a major influence on James Madison the father of our constitution. Montesquieu believed in the division of powers between monarchy, aristocracy, and the people. Sound familiar? It was through Montesquieu’s influence on Madison that we ended up with a President, a Senate and a house of representatives. A system that infuriates the left, with their disdain of division of powers, to this day. If Jefferson, for example, had his way we wouldn’t have ended up with a Senate, and the President wouldn’t have had much power or authority.

These are just some of the men who influenced the founding fathers, and thus conservatism. They all advocated for liberty, less government, and free markets. The intellectual godfathers of the left all argued for some form of dictatorship in one form of another. Liberty or dictatorship, which one do you want to vote for in November?

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