Conservatism is Rooted in Natural Rights

By James Piereson

Is there a distinct form of American conservatism that distinguishes it from varieties of conservatism found in other countries? The answer to that question is certainly “yes.”

The conservative movement in America in the post-war period advanced in two broad stages. In the first phase, running from the 1950s into the 1970s, influential thinkers sought to define conservatism broadly in terms of an approach to politics and society that transcended national boundaries. In the more recent period, conservatives have advanced a set of ideas that are uniquely American, focusing on America’s founding institutions, the Founding Fathers, and a few other notable American thinkers.

William F. Buckley, Jr., is generally credited with launching the post-war conservative movement when he founded National Review in 1954. In launching the magazine, Buckley was greatly influenced by two canonical books that shaped conservative thought in the 1950s: Witness, by Whittaker Chambers (published in 1952), and The Conservative Mind, by Russell Kirk (published in 1953). These books were widely read (both were best-sellers) and favorably reviewed in prominent newspapers and journals, and had great appeal to a reading public searching for something different after two decades of liberal control of national politics. Both Witness and The Conservative Mind, however, outlined versions of conservatism that transcended national boundaries and particular regimes. They were about “Conservatism,” not necessarily American conservatism.

Witness was an autobiographical work in which Chambers traced his personal journey from communism to Christianity, culminating in his confrontation with Alger Hiss over Hiss’s role in espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. The dominant theme of Witness, leaving aside the Hiss case, was religious rather than political. Chambers saw in communism the latest campaign by secular man to displace God as the source of morals and meaning in life and history. Witness, as a work of conservative thought, sounded the alarm that Western civilization was under threat not merely from communism but from secular doctrines in general, including socialism and liberalism. In contrasting himself with Hiss and his supporters, Chambers also drew a line between common citizens (like himself) and highly educated elites who were prepared to sell out the country for their secular ideals—thus pointing toward a conservative version of populism. Nevertheless, Chambers ended the book on a pessimistic note: he said that in abandoning communism he had joined the losing side against the inevitable winners.

The Conservative Mind was a different kind of book, an effort by Kirk to trace the threads of conservative ideas in the writings of prominent thinkers extending back into the 18th century.

Kirk located the origins of conservative thought in Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke’s broadside against the French Revolution where he made the case for tradition, continuity, and stability in politics against the abstract claims of the revolutionaries that turned France upside down. Kirk identified various conservative themes in the writings and speeches of others who were not ordinarily classified as conservatives—figures such as John Adams, Tocqueville, Disraeli, Santayana, and many others. In doing so, he demonstrated …read more

Via:: American Conservative


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