Traditionalist conservatism in the United States

Traditionalist conservatism in the United States is a variant of conservatism based on the political philosophies of Aristotle and Edmund Burke.[1] Traditional conservatives emphasize the bonds of social order over hyper-individualism and the defense of ancestral institutions.[1] Traditionalist conservatives believe in a transcendent moral order, manifested through certain natural laws to which they believe society ought to perform in a prudent manner.[1] Traditionalist conservatives in the United States also emphasize the rule of law in securing individual liberty.[1]


18th century

In terms of "classical conservatism", the Federalists had no connection with European-style aristocracy, monarchy or established religion. Historian John P. Diggins has said:

Thanks to the framers, American conservatism began on a genuinely lofty plane. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Marshall, John Jay, James Wilson, and, above all, John Adams aspired to create a republic in which the values so precious to conservatives might flourish: harmony, stability, virtue, reverence, veneration, loyalty, self-discipline, and moderation. This was classical conservatism in its most authentic expression.[2]

Something akin to Burkean traditionalism was transported to the American colonies through the policies and principles of the Federalist Party and its leadership as embodied by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Federalists strongly opposed the French Revolution, defended traditional Christian morality and supported a new "natural aristocracy" based on "property, education, family status, and sense of ethical responsibility".[3]

John Adams was one of the earliest defenders of a traditional social order in Revolutionary America. In his Defence of the Constitution (1787), Adams attacked the ideas of radicals like Thomas Paine, who advocated for a unicameral legislature (Adams deemed it too democratic). His translation of Discourses on Davila (1790), which also contained his own commentary, was an examination of "human motivation in politics". Adams believed that human motivation inevitably led to dangerous impulses where the government would need to sometimes intervene.[4]

The leader of the Federalist Party was Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury and co-author of The Federalist Papers (1787–1788) which was then and to this day remains a major interpretation of the new 1789 Constitution. Hamilton was critical of both Jeffersonian classical liberalism and the radical ideas coming out of the French Revolution. He rejected laissez-faire economics and favored a strong central government.[5]

19th century

In the era after the Revolutionary Generation, the Whig Party had an approach that resembled Burkean conservatism, although Whigs rarely cited Burke. Whig statesmen led the charge for tradition and custom against the prevailing democratic ethos of the Jacksonian Era. Standing for hierarchy and organic society, in many ways their concepts of the Union paralleled Benjamin Disraeli's "One Nation Conservatism".

Along with Henry Clay, the most noteworthy Whig statesman was Boston's Daniel Webster. A firm Unionist, his most famous speech was his "Second Reply to Hayne" (1829) where he criticized the argument from Southerners such as John C. Calhoun that the states had a right to nullify federal laws they deemed unconstitutional.[6] Webster rarely mentioned Burke but he occasionally followed similar lines of thought.[7]

Webster's intellectual and political heir was Rufus Choate, who admired Burke.[8] Choate was a part of the emerging legal culture in New England, centered on the newly formed Harvard Law School. He believed that lawyers were preservers and conservers of the Constitution and that it was the duty of the educated to govern political institutions. Choate's most famous address was "The Position and Functions of the American Bar, as an Element of Conservatism in the State" (1845).[9]

Two figures in the Northern antebellum period were what Emory University professor Patrick Allitt referred to as the "Guardians of Civilization": George Ticknor and Edward Everett.

George Ticknor, a Dartmouth-educated academic at Harvard, was the chief purveyor of humane learning in the Boston area. A founder of the Boston Public Library and the scion of an old Federalist family, Ticknor educated his students in Romance languages and the works of Dante and Cervantes at home while promoting America abroad to his many international friends, including Lord Byron and Talleyrand.[10]

Like Ticknor, Edward Everett was educated at the same German university (Goettigen) and advocated for the U.S. to follow same virtues as the ancient Greeks and eventually went into politics as a Whig. A firm Unionist (like his friend Daniel Webster), Everett deplored the Jacksonian Democracy that swept the nation. A famed orator in his own right, he supported Lincoln against Southern secession.[11]

American Catholic journalist and political theorist (and former political and religious radical) Orestes Brownson is best known for writing The American Republic, an 1865 treatise examining how America fulfills Catholic tradition and Western Civilization. Brownson was critical of both the Northern abolitionists and the Southern secessionists and was himself a solid Unionist.[12]

20th century

In the 20th century, traditionalist conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic centered on two publications: The Bookman and its successor, The American Review. Owned and edited by the eccentric Seward Collins, these journals published the writings of the British Distributists, the New Humanists, the Southern Agrarians, T. S. Eliot, Christopher Dawson, et al. Eventually, Collins drifted towards support of fascism and as a result lost the support of many of his traditionalist backers. Despite the decline of the journal due to Collins' increasingly radical political views, The American Review left a profound mark on the history of traditionalist conservatism.[13]

Another intellectual branch of early-20th-century traditionalist conservatism was known as the New Humanism. Led by Harvard University professor Irving Babbitt and Princeton University professor Paul Elmer More, the New Humanism was a literary and social criticism movement that opposed both romanticism and naturalism. Beginning in the late 19th century, the New Humanism defended artistic standards and "first principles" (Babbitt's phrase). Reaching an apogee in 1930, Babbitt and More published a variety of books including Babbitt's Literature and the American College (1908), Rousseau and Romanticism (1919) and Democracy and Leadership (1924) and More's Shelburne Essays (1904–1921).[14]

One other group of traditionalist conservatives were the Southern Agrarians. Originally a group of Vanderbilt University poets and writers known as "the Fugitives", they included John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson and Robert Penn Warren. Adhering to strict literary standards (Warren and traditionalist scholar Cleanth Brooks later formulated a form of literary criticism known as the New Criticism), in 1930 some of the Fugitives joined other traditionalist Southern writers to publish I'll Take My Stand, which applied standards sympathetic to local particularism and the agrarian way of life to politics and economics. Condemning northern industrialism and commercialism, the "twelve southerners" who contributed to the book echoed earlier arguments made by the distributists. A few years after the publication of I'll Take My Stand, some of the Southern Agrarians were joined by Hilaire Belloc and Herbert Agar in the publication of a new collection of essays entitled Who Owns America: A New Declaration of Independence.

The new conservatives

After the Second World War, the first stirrings of a "traditionalist movement" took place and among those who launched this movement (and in effect the larger Conservative Movement in America) was University of Chicago professor Richard M. Weaver. Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences (1948) chronicled the steady erosion of Western cultural values since the Middle Ages.[15] In 1949, another professor, Peter Viereck echoed the writings of Weaver with his Conservatism Revisited, which examined the conservative thought of Prince Klemens Metternich.

After Weaver and Viereck a flowering of conservative scholarship occurred starting with the publication of 1953's The New Science of Politics by Eric Voegelin, 1953's The Quest for Community by Robert A. Nisbet and 1955's Conservatism in America by Clinton Rossiter. However, the book that defined the traditionalist school was 1953's The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, written by Russell Kirk, which gave a detailed analysis of the intellectual pedigree of Anglo-American traditionalist conservatism.[16]

When these thinkers appeared on the academic scene they became known for rebuking the progressive worldview inherent in an America comfortable with New Deal economics, a burgeoning military-industrial complex and a consumerist and commercialized citizenry. These conservative scholars and writers garnered the attention of the popular press of the time and before long they were collectively referred to as "the New Conservatives". Among this group were not only Weaver, Viereck, Voegelin, Nisbet, Rossiter and Kirk, but other lesser known thinkers such as John Blum, Daniel Boorstin, McGeorge Bundy, Thomas Cook, Raymond English, John Hallowell, Anthony Harrigan, August Heckscher, Milton Hindus, Klemens von Klemperer, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Richard Leopold, S. A. Lukacs, Malcolm Moos, Eliseo Vivas, Geoffrey Wagner, Chad Walsh and Francis Wilson,[17] as well as Arthur Bestor, Mel Bradford, C. P. Ives, Stanley Jaki, John Lukacs, Forrest McDonald, Thomas Molnar, Gerhard Neimeyer, James V. Schall, S.J., Peter J. Stanlis, Stephen J. Tonsor and Frederick Wilhelmsen.[18]

The acknowledged leader of the New Conservatives was independent scholar, writer, critic and man of letters Russell Kirk. Kirk was a key figure of the conservative movement: he was a friend to William F. Buckley, Jr., a columnist for National Review, an editor and a syndicated columnist, as well as a historian and horror fiction writer. His most famous work was 1953's The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana (later republished as The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot). Kirk's writings and legacy are interwoven with the history of traditionalist conservatism, with his influence felt at the Heritage Foundation, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and other conservative think tanks (most especially the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal).

The Conservative Mind was written by Kirk as a doctoral dissertation while he was a student at the St. Andrews University in Scotland. Previously the author of a biography of American conservative John Randolph of Roanoke, Kirk's The Conservative Mind had laid out six "canons of conservative thought" in the book, including:

  1. Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience... Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.
  2. Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and egalitarian and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.
  3. Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes...
  4. Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic leveling is not economic progress...
  5. Faith in prescription and distrust of "sophisters and calculators." Man must put a control upon his will and his appetite.... Tradition and sound prejudice provide checks upon man's anarchic impulse.
  6. Recognition that change and reform are not identical...[19]

Kirk goes on to examine the thought of a wide array of conservative thinkers, including Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke, American Federalists John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, British literati Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, Southern conservatives John Randolph of Roanoke and John Calhoun, American Catholic political thinker Orestes Brownson, New England writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, British Catholic John Henry Newman, American historian Henry Adams, scholars Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More and George Santayana and Anglo-American poet and literary critic T. S. Eliot.

A traditionalist counter-establishment

The New Conservatives also contributed to the emerging conservative movement and formed a traditionalist counter-establishment, creating and expanding traditionalist organizations and forming new journals and publications. Many traditionalists were contributors to William F. Buckley's National Review, including Russell Kirk and others. The 1950s and early 1960s resulted in a traditionalist "renaissance" and laid the foundation for future traditionalist efforts to succeed.

The Goldwater movement and the campaigns of 1960 and 1964

In 1964, conservatives around the nation, especially the New Right represented by the National Review magazine, were united behind the presidential campaign of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Goldwater had first come to the attention of the public by way of The Conscience of a Conservative, a book ghostwritten for him by L. Brent Bozell Jr. (William F. Buckley, Jr.'s Catholic traditionalist brother-in-law). The book advocated a conservative vision in keeping with Buckley's National Review and propelled Goldwater to unsuccessfully challenge Vice President Richard Nixon for the 1960 Republican presidential nomination.[20]

In 1964, Goldwater returned to challenge the Eastern Establishment, which since the 1930s had controlled the Republican Party. In a brutal campaign where he was maligned by liberal Republican primary rivals (Rockefeller, Romney, Scranton, etc.), the press, the Democrats and President Lyndon B. Johnson, Goldwater again found allies among conservatives, including the traditionalists. Russell Kirk championed Goldwater's cause as the maturation of the New Right in American politics. Kirk advocated for Goldwater in his syndicated columns and campaigned for him in the primaries.[21] Goldwater's subsequent defeat would result in the New Right regrouping and finding a new figurehead in the late 1970s: Ronald Reagan.

Traditionalists in the Reagan era

Most traditionalists were enthusiastic supporters of former California Governor Ronald Reagan when he became president, even when he appointed William J. Bennett over Mel Bradford for a National Endowment for the Humanities post.

T. Kenneth Cribb, Jr., who was for many years the president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, was Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs in the Reagan Administration, serving as President Reagan’s top advisor on domestic matters. Earlier in the administration he held the position of Counselor to the Attorney General.

Traditionalist scholar Russell Kirk was given the Presidential Citizens Medal in 1989.

The restoration of tradition and community in the 21st century

As the conservative movement consolidated itself in the 1980s under the Reagan presidency, found itself in healthy opposition to the Bush and Clinton Eras and came into the presidency of George W. Bush, a new crop of traditionalists, who could be labeled the "neo-traditionalists" appeared. With the advent of the 9/11 attacks and the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan commenced, the Old Guard traditionalists came to criticize the larger conservative movement for its populism and nationalism and were joined in these sentiments by the neo-traditionalists who also in essence sought the restoration of tradition and community in the 21st century.

The fourth generation: the "neo-traditionalists"

Echoing the sentiments of the older generation of traditionalists, the fourth generation would also expand the traditionalist arguments into the digital era, taking to blogs and websites to get their message out, a message of communitarian and family-centered values, of limits on government power and of the necessity of organic society and a sense of roots and of place. Consisting of such figures as Dr. James Matthew Wilson, Jeremy Beer, Mike C. Harmer, Jeffrey O. Nelson, Mark C. Henrie, Caleb Stegall, Rod Dreher, Daniel Larison and others, these traditionlists largely from Generation X proved to be a vanguard against both the progressives and the mainstream conservatives who were dominated by the neoconservatives and the Religious Right.

Leading contemporary traditionalist statesmen

Former U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham was influenced by Russell Kirk.

Former Tennessee Republican Senator Fred Thompson, former Michigan Republican Senator Spencer Abraham and former Illinois Democratic Senator Paul Simon have all been influenced by traditionalist conservative Russell Kirk.[22] Thompson gave an interview about Kirk's influence on the Russell Kirk Center's blog.[23]

Among the U.S. Congressmen influenced by Kirk are former Illinois Republican Congressman Henry Hyde[22] and Michigan Republican Congressmen Thaddeus McCotter and Dave Camp, the latter two of whom visited the Russell Kirk Center in 2009. In 2010, then-Congressman Mike Pence acknowledged Kirk as a major influence.[24]

Former Michigan Republican Governor John Engler is a close personal friend of the Russell Kirk family[22] and also serves as a trustee of the Wilbur Foundation,[25] which funds programs at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in Mecosta, Michigan. Engler gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation on Kirk which is available from the Russell Kirk Center's blog.[26]

The Southern Agrarians had a great influence on New Conservative scholar Richard M. Weaver and writer-farmer Wendell Berry.[27]

Other influences

Other traditionalist conservative influences on those who emerged in the 1940s and 1950s as "the New Conservatives" included Bernard Iddings Bell, Gordon Keith Chalmers, Grenville Clark, Peter Drucker, Will Herberg and Ross J. S. Hoffman.[28]


Journals, periodicals and reviews


  1. 1 2 3 4 Deutsch & Fishman 2010, p. 2.
  2. John P. Diggins (1994). Up from Communism. Columbia UP. p. 390. ISBN 9780231084895.
  3. Viereck, p. 89
  4. Patrick Allitt, The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History (Yale University Press, 2009) p. 12
  5. Frohnen, pp. 369–70.
  6. Frohnen, pp. 906–08.
  7. Craig R. Smith (2005). Daniel Webster and the Oratory of Civil Religion. University of Missouri Press. p. 45. ISBN 9780826264299.
  8. Rufus Choate (2002). The Political Writings of Rufus Choate. Regnery Gateway. p. 6. ISBN 9780895261540.
  9. Muller, Jerry Z., ed. Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present (Princeton University, 1997) pp. 152–66.
  10. Allitt, Patrick. (2009) The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 62–63.
  11. Allitt, Patrick. (2009) The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 63–64.
  12. Allitt, Patrick. (2009) The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 83–86.
  13. Frohnen, Bruce, Jeremy Beer, and Jeffrey O. Nelson (2006) American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, pp. 76–77.
  14. Frohnen, Bruce, Jeremy Beer, and Jeffrey O. Nelson (2006) American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, pp. 621–22.
  15. Nash, George H. (1976, 2006)The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, pp. 30–36.
  16. Dunn, Charles W. (2003)The Conservative Tradition in America, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, p. 10.
  17. Viereck, Peter (1956, 2006) Conservative Thinkers from John Adams to Winston Churchill. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishing, p. 107.
  18. Nash, George H. (1976, 2006) The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, pp. 50–55, 68–73.
  19. Kirk, Russell (1953)The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot. Washington, D.C.:Regnery, pp. 7–8.
  20. Allitt, Patrick. (2009) The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p. 188.
  21. Kirk, Russell. (1995) The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., pp. 285–288.
  22. 1 2 3 Person, James E., Jr. Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind. Lanham, MD: Madison Books, p. 217.
  23. Senator Fred Thompson « Russell Kirk, man of letters
  25. the grant foundation grants org at
  26. Michigan Governor John Engler speaks at the Heritage Foundation « Russell Kirk, man of letters
  27. Frohnen, Bruce, Jeremy Beer, and Jeffrey O. Nelson (2006) American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, pp. 798–99.
  28. Viereck, Peter (1956, 2006) Conservative Thinkers from John Adams to Winston Churchill. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, p. 107.


  • Deutsch, Kenneth L.; Fishman, Ethan (2010). The Dilemmas of American Conservatism. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-813-13962-7. 
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