»  Chronicles

January 2016

  Flame of Hope

Conservative Heroes: Fourteen Leaderts Who Shaped America, from Jefferson to Reagan
by Garland S. Tucker III

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The 21st century has not so far been a happy time for American conservatives. It began with an appalling terrorist attack whose key perpetrators had taken advantage of our government's insouciance towards mass immigration from the Third World. Instead of reversing the trend towards demographic transformation, the authorities doubled down on it: We now accept for settlement over 100,000 Muslims every year, twice the typical figure during the 1990s.

We then commenced a series of missionary wars of the type commonly called Wilsonian, none of which had any good effect on the health of our nation or the liberty of her citizens. In domestic matters, meanwhile, the power, scope, and profligacy of the federal government increased by leaps and bounds. Vast new welfare programs were implemented.

"When someone is hurting, government has got to move," said the President who presided over all these events — a man who had been advertised to us, by both the Left and the Right, as a conservative!

The next President was even worse: a man with no executive experience at all, and whose head was stuffed up to the nose-holes with 1980s college-radical flapdoodle. Other than civil-rights lawyering, the new guy had worked for just one year in the private sector, an experience he described in his autobiography as "like being a spy behind enemy lines." The nation elected him twice.

The achievements of conservatism at the national level during this first one-seventh of the new century have amounted to … nothing at all. Conservatives have for many years been dwelling in the catacombs.

The flame has not been extinguished, though. To keep it alive, and in hopes of better times to come, it helps mightily to have clear written accounts of conservative principles and their place in our country's history. A book of 200 or so pages, crisply written, with a focus on human personalities to hold the general reader's interest, is ideal — just the thing to recommend to an open-minded inquirer, or to offer as a gift to a thoughtful member of the college generation.

Garland Tucker has produced such a book. His nine chapters, the longest only twenty-two pages, introduce fourteen men who have represented the spirit of American conservatism in action, from Thomas Jefferson to Ronald Reagan. The careers of these fourteen are described in such a way as to show their adherence to the foundational conservative principles, and the way in which those principles directed their political actions.

What are conservatism's core principles? Tucker identifies five in his Introduction: realism (which is to say, a measured pessimism) about human nature; "maintaining justice," as Russell Kirk wrote of Taft's perspective, "through a healthy tension of order and freedom"; restraint in government; Locke's conviction that property rights and liberty are inseparable; and the cultivation of private virtue validated by a traditional common culture.

All these principles generate nontrivial political conflicts. What is the right balance between order and liberty? What if an entire section of the nation regards human beings to be a legitimate form of property? Is religion a necessary component of traditional common culture? Any religion?

American political history is the record of our struggles to resolve such issues. Progressives have urged change through government action; conservatives have preferred to let society evolve at its own pace. As Calvin Coolidge, who shares the book's fifth chapter with his Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, said: "Real reform does not begin with a law, it ends with a law."

In his third chapter, on Nathaniel Macon and John Randolph, the author quotes Russell Kirk again, paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson: "A democratic passion for legislating is a menace to liberty." Reading that line stirred a distant, vaguely unpleasant memory, which a little googling soon tracked down to its source. The memory was of New York's Chuck Schumer running his first campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1998. Schumer had boasted to voters that: "I have a passion to legislate." Schumer's subsequent career both demonstrates the sincerity of that boast and verifies Kirk's apothegm.

That fifth chapter on Coolidge and Mellon, and the seventh, on John W. Davis, recapitulate in compressed form some of the material in Tucker's book of 2010, The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge, and the 1924 Election. It is instructive now to see these men in full historical perspective, bound in covers with Jefferson and Reagan, John Randolph and Barry Goldwater. (Reagan, the author reminds us, within minutes of concluding his first inaugural address, "directed the White House curator to hang the portrait of Coolidge in the Cabinet Room.")

A book of this kind inevitably has a summary quality to it as it canters through administrations and eras. The necessary summarizing can be done well or badly; I think Garland Tucker has done it very well. He is an amateur historian, but an intelligent and conscientious one, who has condensed much reading and reflection into a very accessible account of what American conservatism is, and has done.

Nor has Tucker yielded to the temptation to make his book an advertisement for the Republican Party. Of his nine post-Civil War subjects, three were Democrats.

John W. Davis, the Democrats' candidate in the 1924 election, was a rock-ribbed conservative American of the best type. Tucker tells us that: "During Davis's tenure as U.S. ambassador to the court of St. James, King George V labeled him 'the most perfect gentleman." That is no mean compliment from a man who was, for all his much-mocked intellectual shortcomings, a severely discriminating judge of gentlemanliness, and chary with compliments.

Josiah W. Bailey, who served as U.S. Senator for North Carolina from 1930 until his death in 1946, led a small band of congressional Democrats opposed to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. In 1937 they, together with some Republican colleagues, produced a document known as "The Conservative Manifesto," arguing for fiscal restraint, balanced budgets, private enterprise, states' rights, and so on.

And then there is Grover Cleveland, "the Beast of Buffalo" to his political enemies, and the last President from the Democratic Party who can properly be called a conservative. Researching my 2009 polemic We Are Doomed, I was surprised to find that Cleveland holds the record for annualized vetoes of legislation, with an astounding 73 vetoes per annum. (George W. Bush's tally was a wretched 1.5 — twelve vetoes in eight years.) Cleveland cleaned up a party deeply corroded by patronage, faced down serious labor unrest, and lifted the country out of a deep recession:

As a reformer in a corrupt era, Cleveland breathed new life into the old Jeffersonian concepts of economy, limited government, strict constructionism, and personal liberty in the face of an ascendant, combative progressivism. In his unflinching devotion to these conservative principles he secured his place in the panoply of conservative heroes. But he will be equally remembered for his common sense, character, and courage.

Most general readers will find things here they did not know before. I was particularly taken by the author's chapter on John C. Calhoun, hitherto little more than a name to me.

Amity Shlaes tells us in her foreword to this book that Calhoun will be the most debated name in Tucker's roster on account of his support for slavery. Calhoun defended the peculiar institution as not merely a necessary evil but a positive good. This, says Shlaes, has been enough to see him erased from school history texts, and to make him a figure of compulsory obloquy to modern liberals and their fellow-travelers in "official" conservatism.

The scrubbing of Calhoun has, says Shlaes, left our younger generation in the dark about some valuable history. Tucker fills the gap. He reminds us of the esteem for Calhoun in his own time, even among those whose principles were the opposite of his:

On his death in 1850, Calhoun was widely eulogized throughout the South, as one would expect. But the comments of nonsoutherners, including abolitionists, were more revealing. William Lloyd Garrison lauded Calhoun: "He is a man who means what he says and who never blusters. He is no demagogue." Wendell Phillips called Calhoun "the pure, manly and uncompromising advocate of slavery; the Hector of a Troy fated to fall."

Praise for Calhoun continued for several decades thereafter. As Amity Shlaes reminds us, John F. Kennedy expressed his "admiration for this great South Carolinian" both in print (Profiles in Courage, 1955) and on the campaign trail. The U.S.A. has not produced so many first-class political intellects that we can afford to forget one, whatever he thought about slavery.

Is there hope for a rebirth of American conservatism? It is not easy to resist despair. Tucker tells us that, "From 1921 through 1928, the federal budget was reduced by an astounding 35 percent." Further on we read, "Reagan's administration reduced the annual growth rate in federal spending from an average of 4 percent under Carter to 2.5 percent." Today, thirty years on from Reagan, it would be an achievement to cut back the second derivative — the rate of growth of the rate of growth.

Conservatism is still alive, though, in small discussion groups and dinner clubs (I belong to two), at numerous sites on the internet, in magazines like Chronicles, and in books like Garland Tucker's Conservative Heroes. Those foundational principles live on, for our contemplation and inspiration, while we await better times. Dum spiramus, speramus.